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Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online

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Disrupting
the Binary
Code:
Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankans Online

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Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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Disrupting
the Binary
Code:
Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankans Online

Women and Media Collective
Association for Progressive Communications
AmplifyChange
and
EROTICS South Asia: exploratory research on Sexuality and the ICTs

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Disrupting the Binary Code:
Experiences of LGBT Sri Lankans Online

First Print: December 2017
(c) Women and Media Collective
ISBN 978-955-1770-33-4
Production Team, Paba Deshapriya, Michael Mendis,
Researchers and writers Dr. Shermal Wijewardena,
Subha Wijesiriwardena,
Dr. Sepali Kottegoda and Sanchia Brown
Reviewers Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Zainab Ibrahim
Copy editor APC
Layout and Design Velayudan Jayachithra
Printing Globe Printing Works
Research & publication support AmplifyChange

Published by:
Women and Media Collective (WMC)
56/1, Sarasavi Lane, Castle Street, Colombo 08, Sri Lanka
Telephone: +94112690201 Fax: +94112690192
Email: wmcsrilanka@gmail.comWebsite: www.womenandmedia.org
Facebook: Women and Media Collective (WMC)
Twitter: @womenandmedia
You Tube: Women and Media Collective

Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
P.O. Box 29755, Melville, 2109, Johannesburg, South Africa
Telefax: +27 11 726 1692
Email: info@apc.org
Website: www.apc.org
Facebook: APCnews
Twitter: APC_news
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Content

List of Abbreviations................................................................................7
Acknowledgements................................................................................ 8
Foreword................................................................................................. 9

Chapter One : ‘Virtually Queer:
Human rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space’ .............11
Section 1: Introduction .................................................................. 13
Section 2: Background .................................................................. 20
Section 3: Sexuality and the Online Space in Sri Lanka ............... 29
Section 4: Law and Policy ............................................................. 66

Chapter Two : Not Traditionally Technical : Lesbian women in
Sri Lanka and their use of the online space.................................. 83
Introduction................................................................................... 85
Methodology................................................................................. 86
Family Surveillance and Public Surveillance................................. 88
Conclusion .................................................................................... 102

Recommendations...............................................................................105
References............................................................................................108
Appendices............................................................................................112
Appendix A: Glossary of terms ....................................................112
Appendix B: Survey Questionnaire..............................................114

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List of Figures

Figure o1: Gender Identity of survey respondents .................................17
Figure 2: Sexual Orientation of survey respondents ............................. 18
Figure 3: Age of survey respondents ...................................................... 18
Figure 04: Education of survey respondents ......................................... 18
Figure 05: Devices used by survey respondents ....................................20
Figure 06: Respondent’s access to the internet in terms of hours.......30
Figure 07: Personal details shared publicly on social media .................40

List of Tables

Table 01: Accessing information on the internet ................................... 32
Table 02: Sharing information on social media ......................................39
Table 03: mentioning of SOGI online ......................................................40
Table 04: including real name / images online ....................................... 41
Table 05: number of profiles per individual online ................................42
Table 06: use of profiles that don’t feature their real name or
image........................................................................................43
Table 07: online dating platforms ...........................................................49
Table 08: adverse online experiences ....................................................56
Table 09: online platforms associated with identified experiences ..... 57
Table 10: their relation to the person affected by the experience ........58
Table 11: response to the experience .....................................................59
Table 12: resolution to the experience ...................................................59
Table 13: methods used to increase security online .............................. 61
Table 14: activity on dating and hook-up platforms............................... 61
Table 15: activity on dating and hook-up platforms ............................... 61
Table 16: meeting someone from a dating platform .............................62

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List of Abbreviations

APC – Association for Progressive Communications
CCA – Computer Crimes Act
COJ – Companions on a journey
CPC – Criminal Procedure Code
EROTICS – Exploratory Research on ICTs and Sexuality
FGD – Focus Group Discussion
ISP – Internet Service Providers
LGBTQ – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning
persons
NCPA – National Child Protection Authority
NGO – Non-Governmental Organisation
NSACP – National STD/AIDS Control Programme
PRC – Public Representation of Constitution Reform
SOGI – Sexual Orientation and Gender Identities
TRC – Telecommunications Regulatory Commission
UNAIDS – The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS
WMC – Women and Media Collective

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Acknowledgements

T he Women and Media Collective (WMC) would like to thank all the
respondents who shared their stories and experiences, without
which this research would not have been possible. We are also
appreciative of all the stakeholders who gave their time in order to
provide the information that was required for the study. WMC also
graciously thanks the Association for Progressive Communications
(APC) for the opportunity to conduct this study and for providing
guidance and support throughout this research. Special thanks to
Jac sm Kee, Katerina Fialova and Valentina Pellizzer of APC for their
invaluable support.

We also wish to thank the lead researchers and authors – Paba
Deshapriya, Michael Mendis (Chapter 1 - ‘Virtually queer: Human rights
of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space’), Dr. Shermal Wijewardena
and Subha Wijesiriwardena (Chapter 2: Not Traditionally Technical :
Lesbian women in Sri Lanka and their use of the online space) while
extending gratitude to Jayanthi Kuru – Utumpala and Zainab Ibrahim
for reviewing the research.

WMC is also grateful to AmplifyChange for the financial support
provided to carry out the study. We also thank our partners of
the ‘EROTICS South Asia Network’: Point of View (POV), Mumbai
and LOOM Nepal for their support. WMC also thanks its members
Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, Velayudan Jayachithra and Sanchia Brown from
the project team; and Nelika Rajapakse and Vanamali Galappatti from
the finance team.

We also extend our thanks to the translators Gobinath Ponnuthurai and
Inoka Priyadarshani and proofreaders Sumika Perera and Kuhanithy
Kuhaneshan. Our sincere thanks to Kosala Tillekeratne of Globe
Printing Works for the printing of this study.

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Foreword

T his book explores the relationship between internet rights and
sexuality in Sri Lanka. The research for the book was supported
by the Association for Progressive Communication as part of a wider
inquiry that included India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The core area of the
research looks at areas of ICT policies or practices in Sri Lanka that
impact sexuality and sexual rights. The research focused on two areas:
Access to the internet (including affordability and geography) and
how this affects Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning
(LGBTQ) Sri Lankans usage of the internet for activism and, Censorship
(by the state or internet service providers or institutions) of sexual
content, including critical information on sexuality.

The Sri Lanka study specifically looks at the ways in which the LGBTQ
communities access the internet whether as a means of communicating
with others or as a site of activism. Given the fact that non-heterosexual
and non-cis persons who are identified as LGBTQ live in a context where
homosexuality is criminalized, the internet provides a key source of
communication for LGBTQ Sri Lankans. The study gives an overview
of the regulatory framework on ICTs in the country and the ways in
which social norms that herald heterosexuality and stigmatise non-
heterosexual persons are navigated by LGBTQ Sri Lankans through
social media platforms.

The study is presented in two chapters. The first chapter, ‘Virtually
queer; Human Rights of LGBTQ Sri Lankans in the online space’ by P.M.
Deshapriya and J.M. Mendis examines the landscape of ICT policy and
sexual rights in the country. It provides a broad overview of the socio-
political environment in which LGBTQ Sri Lankans live, the findings
of the survey questionnaire, focus group discussion and individual
interviews.

The second chapter, ‘Not Traditionally Technical: Lesbian women in
Sri Lanka and Their Use of the Online Space’ by Shermal Wijewardena
and Subha Wijesiriwardena is a dedicated analysis of lesbian women’s
engagement with the online. Through one-to-one interviews and a
focus group discussion, this section brings to light the gendered and
sexualized experiences of lesbian women’s online engagements.

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This pioneering study is a critical means for advocacy on ways in which
freedom of sexual expression online can contribute to breaking taboos
and amplifying the voices of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka.

Sepali Kottegoda
Women and Media Collective
December 2017

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Chapter 1

Virtually Queer:
Human rights of LGBTQ
Sri Lankans in the online space

Paba Deshapriya and Michael Mendis

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Section one
Introduction

T he internet is hailed as a “vital communications medium”1 that
allows people to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of
all kinds.”2 It’s most remarkable contribution has been to make public
discourse far more inclusive than ever before. The internet allows flows
of information at much lower costs, over much longer distances, and
with much less delay than any other communications medium in history,
allowing more people to enjoy the benefits of communication, access
to information, self-expression and social networking. Moreover, the
internet has “multiplied and amplified the capacity of the most diverse
groups to get information, engage in exchanges, politically mobilise
and overcome the passive mode of reception that characterised the
past logic of public sphere dynamics.”3

Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression has
reiterated that “the framework of international human rights law, in
particular the provisions relating to the right to freedom of expression,
continues to remain relevant and applicable to the internet. Indeed, by
explicitly providing that everyone has the right to freedom of expression
1 La Rue, F. (2011). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to
freedom of opinion and expression. www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Opinion/A.66.290.pdf
2 Ibid.
3 Corrêa, S. et al. (2011). Internet regulation and sexual politics in Brazil. In Jac sm Kee (Ed.),
Erotics: Sex, Rights and the Internet. Johannesburg: APC, 27. www.apc.org/en/pubs/erotics-
research
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through any media of choice, regardless of frontiers, Articles 19 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights were drafted with the foresight to include
and accommodate future technological developments through which
individuals may exercise this right.”4

Evidently the internet plays a vital role in improving the lives of all
people. Yet, to LGBTQ Sri Lankans, the internet is especially important.
For them, it facilitates friendships and relationships that are otherwise
systematically obstructed in the offline world. In stark contrast
to this offline world, the internet also provides these people with
unprecedented opportunities to express themselves and build their
identities, both individually and collectively. As a source of information,
the internet disrupts and undermines the wilful exclusion of LGBTQ Sri
Lankans from public discourse. LGBTQ people online are also able to
access a global body of queer art, while other representations of non-
heterosexual and non-cisgender people in the mainstream media in
Sri Lanka continue to be flat and harmfully stereotypical. At the same
time, many who are engaged in a “movement” for LGBTQ rights in Sri
Lanka bemoan the individualism engendered by the internet, and the
adverse impacts this exerts on community organising and community
mobilising. Indeed, although it is widely said of the internet that, “The
virtual and the ‘real’ cannot be separated […] as discrete spheres
of social activity,”5 and that, “online and offline interactions and
experiences are seamless,”6 the findings of the present study on how
the internet is significant in the lives of LGBTQ Sri Lankans throw those
claims into some doubt.

The first part of the study is presented in three substantive
sections. Background provides a collated overview of the socio-
political environment in which LGBTQ Sri Lankans live. The second
section, Sexuality and the Online Space in Sri Lanka, discusses
the substantive findings of the survey questionnaire, focus-
group discussion and individual interviews. The third, Law and
Policy, deals with issues in the legal framework that contribute
to and compound the issues discussed in the preceding section.

The second part of the study is a dedicated analysis looking at how
lesbian women engage with the online space. As one-on-one
4 La Rue, F. (2011). Op. cit., 14.
5 Corrêa, S. et al. (2011). Op. cit., 23.
6 Ibid.

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interviews and a focus group discussion showed, lesbian women’s
online engagements demanded to be treated as specifically gendered
and sexualised experiences, while being classed, race-d and so on.
Their approach to the online space was traced through with the
awareness that they had to negotiate being hailed by a patriarchal and
heterosexist social system.

The outline of the research objectives, methodology and key limitations
follows:

Objectives
1. To explore how the online space and services are utilised by LGBTQ
Sri Lankans to enjoy their human rights.
2. To explore the limitations and restrictions faced by LGBTQ
Sri Lankans in their use and enjoyment of the online space in
furtherance of their human rights.
3. To identify key policy reforms that could ameliorate the conditions
of use and enjoyment of the online space by LGBTQ Sri Lankans.

Methodology

The study used a mix of research methodologies, both quantitative
and qualitative, which included:
1. A desk review of internet policies, relevant legislative and license
of internet service providers (ISPs) in order to understand the
existing attitude to access, and a review of the legal framework
relating to LGBTQ people in Sri Lanka.
2. Semi-structured interviews with a cross-cutting range of 10
stakeholders including the government sector (Law enforcement,
National Child Protection Authority, Sri Lanka Computer
Emergency Readiness Team), the private sector (ISPs), civil
society, for example LGBTQ organisations, groups and individuals
and human rights activists.
3. A focus group discussion with the members of the LGBTQ
community and LGBTQ organisations in Sri Lanka. Venasa trans
network, DAST group, Heart to Heart and Young Out Here
were among the organisations at the discussion. Apart from
those groups, members representing academia, advertising,
modelling and LGBTQ activists also took part in the discussion.

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Of 14 participants there were four trans people, six gay men, two
lesbians and two bisexual men.
4. An online survey of 85 responses to better understand how LGBTQ
people use and access the internet and what knowledge they
have about online safety. The survey was designed in consultation
with community members and LGBTQ organisations. A total of
32 female, 46 male, three trans and two gender non identifying
people responded to the survey. Respondents were reached
through LGBTQ organisations and groups. The survey was
conducted online to maintain the anonymity of the participants.
5. The research was conducted by two (one male and one female)
researchers. Both researchers have a positive rapport with the
LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka and are recognised as advocates for
the decriminalisation of homosexuality and upholding the human
rights of sexual minority groups. Both researchers were present
at all the interviews except for one semi-structured interview in
which the respondent requested to be interviewed by the female
researcher.

Social media platforms and non virtual forums held in Colombo – i.e. a
cyber exploitation policy briefing by the United Nations and Sri Lanka,
an online action group by the Child Protection authority – were also
studied to gather information. The findings of the desk review were
cross-checked during the focus group discussion and semi-structured
interviews and were used to formulate the survey. Different sources
of data were woven together for the purpose of this report therefore
the different methodologies do not stand alone in the report but as a
combination of all.

Constraints and limitations
1. Information on government surveillance was unavailable due to
legal restrictions and there was no meeting with government
representatives responsible for digital infrastructure and
implementation. Requesting an interview on LGBTQ concerns was
not appreciated and was mostly neglected by the government
representatives.
2. Due to the uneven representation in the survey, cross-community
comparisons were not feasible. Reaching out to the trans
community proved difficult, possibly due to their lack of access
to the internet. Some of the difficulties in reaching the relevant

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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demographic arose from the perceived criminality of homosexuality
in Sri Lanka, which has driven most non-heterosexual and non-
cisgender Sri Lankans into lives of secrecy and silence, insulated
from the outer world.
3. Despite efforts made, the research team was unfortunately unable
to interview Equal Ground – one of the leading LGBTQ groups in Sri
Lanka. This created a gap in the report especially in terms of cyber
violence incidents that this organisation records.
4. The research team was unable to incorporate the discussion
and events which took place in January 2017 on decriminalising
homosexuality due to time constraints.

Key findings

The survey covered 85 respondents.

Demographics

Figure o1: Gender Identity of survey respondents

The survey was dominated by men, at 59.5% while 34.5% were women.
Only 3 trans persons participated in the survey.

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Figure 2 : Sexual Orientation of survey respondents

Responding to the question on sexual orientation, most of the
respondents 59.5% stated that they are only attracted to members
of the same sex. 28.6% stated that they are bisexual while 9.5% of the
respondents said that the sex of a person is not relevant. Two trans
respondents stated that they are heterosexual.

Figure 3: Age of survey respondents

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More than half of the respondents are between the ages of 25 – 34.
were aged.

Figure 04: Education of survey respondents

Most respondents had higher education qualifications, with 47.8% with
a bachelor’s degree and 15.5% having a master’s degree. Only 11.9%
stated that they had only passed an ordinary level exam.

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Section Two
Background

Sexuality in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people, identified
as LGBTQ Sri Lankans in this paper, continue to live under a shroud
of invisibility. Despite the continuous struggle for legal recognition
and reforms since the early 1990s, many people with these alternate
identities continue to live their lives in secrecy, away from government
contact, beyond the reach of community organisations and most
importantly apart from each other.

This state of invisibility and isolation is broadly a result of Sri Lankan
“conservatism”, in which attitudes towards and discourses on sexuality
and sexual relationships are heavily controlled by societal and cultural
forces opposed to sexual and gender diversity.

Sexual conservatism in Sri Lanka regulates individuals through gender
roles based on a rigid, male/female binary construct; sex is restricted
by a “logic of reproduction”7. Sexuality is restricted to marriage, and
those who pursue sexual activity outside the confines of a marriage,
especially women, are vilified. Sexual issues are “privatised” to such
7 Groundviews. (2016, 25 August). Submission on LGBTIQ Persons and Transitional Justice
Mechanisms. Groundviews. groundviews.org/2016/08/25/submission-on-lgbtiq-persons-and-
transitional-justice-mechanisms/

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an extent that discussion in the public sphere is discouraged. Sex
education in public schools is virtually non-existent and only exists in
a few private schools.8

This conservatism exerts a significant influence on many aspects of
public life, especially in areas of legal and policy reform. However,
behind this conservatism the private lives of many Sri Lankans who do
not seem to conform to such values continues. According to the Family
Health Bureau, Sri Lanka records the best family planning performance
in the region, with the contraceptive (all methods) prevalence rate
among “eligible families”9 registered with public health midwives
at 64.9%.10 For our discussion, the high contraceptive prevalence
rate indicates that sexual activity among couples (married or living
together) clearly takes place outside the expectation of reproduction.

In 2011, the Ministry of Transport reported that one in four women
experienced sexual harassment while using public transport. Later that
year, the Legal Aid Commission suggested that over 70% of women
(between the ages of 15 and 45) were subject to sexual harassment
while using public transport. In 2015, the United Nations Population
Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka claimed that this number had increased to
over 90%. Dr Sisira Liyanage, director of the National HIV Programme,
stated that in 2015 23 students in schools became HIV positive through
unprotected sex, with 22 students contracting HIV in 2014.11 Mapping
studies estimate that there are approximately 35,000 to 47,000 female
sex workers and 24,000 to 37,000 men who have sex with men in Sri
Lanka.

In this context, prevalent narratives on sexuality and gender in Sri
Lanka are constructed around the false assumption that all people
are either male or female, which is determined exclusively by their
genitalia, and that attraction to members of the opposite gender is the
“natural” sexual inclination of all people.

8 Women and Media Collective. (2015, 6 March). Country Profile on Universal Access to Sexual
and Reproductive Health: Sri Lanka. Women and Media Collective. womenandmedia.org/
country-profile-on-universal-access-to-sexual-and-reproductive-health-sri-lanka/
9 Eligible Family is defined as a family either legally married or living together where the woman
is between 15 to 49 years and / or has a child under 5 years. A family with a pregnant or
cohabiting woman irrespective of marital status and age and single women (widow, divorced,
separated) are also considered under eligible family.
10 Family Health Bureau, Ministry of Health Sri Lanka. (2013). Annual Report on Family Health 2013.
Colombo. http://medicine.kln.ac.lk/depts/publichealth/Fixed_Learning/annual_report_2013.pdf
11 Bakamoono. How does accurate and comprehensive sexuality and relationship education
help prevent HIV? bakamoono. www.bakamoono.lk/en/hiv/30/how-does-accurate-and-
comprehensive-sexuality-education-help-prevent-hiv
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These assumptions have enabled widespread stigma and discrimination
against non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people, succeeding in
driving many of them underground, stifling their sexual expression and
relationships, marginalising them from accessing essential services like
healthcare, access to justice, education, etc., and condemning the most
vulnerable of them to lives of socio-economic and personal insecurity.

Homosexuality and the law

The key indicator of this stigma and discrimination lies in the Penal
Code provisions, Sections 365 and 365A.

The first section criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of
nature”, and the second criminalises “acts of gross indecency” between
persons. These laws have been criticised for decades, and there have
been repeated calls for their repeal since the mid/1990s.12 Although the
provisions remain formally unenforced since independence in 1948,13
the necessity of their standing to preserve “public order and morality”
has been touted by the government before the Human Rights
Committee in Geneva as recently as 2014,14 Even by the end of 2016,
the Police continued to question and apprehend individuals under the
provisions to the extent that these are “valid” laws of the land.15

A situation analysis by Equal Ground highlights Sections 365 and 365A
as a “tool to target and harass the LGBTQ community”.16 However,
the analysis also stresses that, “parental, communal, and cultural
surveillance … entangle with the law to maintain gender stereotypes
and suppress expressions of alternate sexuality”.17 The report provides
a concrete example of such “surveillance” on Sri Lanka: police consider
themselves authorised to arrest gender non-conforming people
because the differences in their sexual and gender expressions indicate,
12 Baudh, S. (2013). Decriminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts in the South Asian
Commonwealth: Struggles in Context. In C. Lennox & M. Waites (Eds.), Human Rights, Sexual
Orientation and Gender Identity in The Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and
Change. London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Human Rights Consortium.
13 Equal Ground et al. (2013, December). “There have been no convictions under 365 and 365A
since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.” Human Rights Violations Against Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People in Sri Lanka. tbInternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared
Documents/LKA/INT_CCPR_ICO_LKA_15986_E.pdf
14 OutRight International, (2014, 20 October). Sri Lanka Government says LGBT Rights are
Constitutionally Protected. OutRight Action International. www.outrightinternational.org/
content/sri-lanka-government-says-lgbt-rights-are-constitutionally-protected
15 DIG Ajith Rohana, speaking at an event, High-level Dialogue on Human Rights and Constitutional
Reform. organised by FPA Sri Lanka and others. Colombo, 16 December 2016.
16 Thangarajah, P. (2013). Strengthening of Legal Protection for LGBT in Sri Lanka: Road to
Decriminalization. Equal Ground GROUND. issuu.com/equalground/docs/situation_analysis
17 Ibid. text accompanying note 41. Emphasis added.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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to them, the “likelihood” of engaging in either “carnal intercourse
against the order of nature” under section 365,18 or “acts of gross
indecency” under section 365A. However, due to the practice of not
formally charging people suspected of committing the offences, the
“enforcement” of Sections 365 and 365A enables the police to subject
individuals to arbitrary arrests, extortion, forced sexual favours, and
sometimes even rape.19 Further, the existence of these laws prevents
survivors of such violence from reporting the crimes to the police or
accessing other remedial mechanisms.

The law also enables many discriminatory acts beyond law enforcement,
such as the refusal of accommodation by prospective landlords,20 the
refusal of job opportunities,21 and even, as one writer reports, the
refusal of advertising space in mainstream newspapers for LGBTQ
events.22 Thus, the impact of the law reaches speech and conduct
well beyond the acts specifically prohibited in the law. In fact, due to
the generally private contexts in which most sexual acts take place,
Sections 365 and 365A are nearly ineffective against the criminalised
acts themselves. Still, even without enforcement, the laws act to
suppress the identities and relationships of people with alternative
sexual orientation and/or gender identities.

Section 399 of the Penal Code makes it an offence to cheat by
impersonation. A person is said to “cheat by impersonation” if he
pretends to be someone else, or by knowingly substituting one person
for another, or representing that he or any other person is a person
other than he or such other person really is. The police have been said
to arrest transgender people under this law.23 It has been noted that
“In some cases it appears that rape of [trans women and cross-dressing
people] by police officers may be informally institutionalised.”24 The
Vagrants Ordinance of 1841 is also used in a similar manner to arbitrarily
arrest or hassle LGBTQ Sri Lankans in public spaces.

18 Ibid.
19 Equal Ground et al. (2013, December). Op. cit., 4-6.
20 Equal Ground. (2012). Towards a Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Transgendered (LGBT)
Stigma and Discrimination Index for Sri Lanka. Equal Ground. issuu.com/equalground/docs/
the_lgbt_stigma_and_discrimination_
21 Ibid.
22 Baudh, S. (2013). Op.cit. 292.
23 Human Rights Watch. (2016). All Five Fingers are Not the Same: Discrimination on Grounds
of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch. www.hrw.org/
report/2016/08/15/all-five-fingers-are-not-same/discrimination-grounds-gender-identity-and-
sexual
24 Nichols, A. (2010). Dance Ponnaya, Dance! Police Abuses Against Transgender Sex Workers in
Sri Lanka. Sage, 5(2), 195, 214. grassrooted.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Nichols-Dance-
Ponnaya-Dance.pdf

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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Stigma and discrimination

The stigma and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ Sri Lankans
is not limited to the unenforced, draconian Penal Code provisions.
Quite independently of them, many LGBTQ Sri Lankans continue to
face discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, education,
and access to essential public services. More importantly, they also
experience discrimination in their personal lives.

A Stigma Index25 published by Equal Ground reports data collected in a
survey of 119 LGBTQ respondents. Some of the findings are extracted
below (figures reflect percentages of 119 respondents and refer to
occurrences in the two years leading up to the survey):

• 11.76% were excluded from religious places/activities at least once
• 21.85% were excluded from family gatherings at least once
• 24.37% had to change residence or were unable to rent
accommodation at least once
• 25.21% lost their jobs
• 28.57% were excluded from social gatherings/activities at least
once
• 36.97% had been victims of physical abuse, harassment, threats,
assaults, rape and/or battery
• 62.18% had been verbally insulted, harassed and/or threatened
• 62.18% had faced some form of psychological or emotional trauma
or abuse
• 74.79% were aware of being the subject of gossip at least once.
Even where a majority of respondents said they had “never”
experienced the type of discrimination or stigmatisation asked about,
subsequent responses indicate that many respondents also live lives of
near-absolute secrecy, choosing not to disclose their sexual orientation
or gender identity to family members, employers or even healthcare
professionals. Thus, there may be a relationship between the visibility
of a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity (whether
voluntary or not) and their vulnerability to stigma and discrimination
in society.

At the same time, it must be stated that most studies undertaken by
researchers, like the Stigma Index discussed here, avoid presenting
their research findings as “statistical” data. Most studies conducted
25 Equal Ground. (2012). Towards a Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Transgendered (LGBT)
Stigma and Discrimination Index for Sri Lanka. Op. cit.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
24
on LGBTQ issues in Sri Lanka face structural difficulties in reaching their
subjects. The index published by Equal Ground had 119 respondents
to their survey after quality control. The study Not gonna take it lying
down by the Women’s Support Group had interviewed 33 LGBTQI
people. The All Five Fingers Are Not the Same publication by Human
Rights Watch had involved 61 participants. The present study only saw
the participation of 70 people in its quantitative survey.

“One of the main challenges associated with this research is sampling.
LGBTQ related stigma is so prevalent that LGBTQ people do not want to
be known as LGBTQ people within their wider communities. They fear
being discriminated against and are convinced that the less people know
about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity the less chance
they have of facing any form of discrimination.”26

While independent researchers face difficulties in studying LGBTQ
issues from a sociological perspective, LGBTQ Sri Lankans also continue
to be invisible in the eyes of the Sri Lankan government. The only
official/government data publicly available on these Sri Lankans is in
the references to “homosexuality” and “men who have sex with men”
in the Ministry of Health’s report to UNAIDS. Although the Census and
Statistics Department conducted a national survey on self-reported
health for the first time in 2014, it did not incorporate any issues
relevant to sexuality and reproductive health. The same department
conducts a quarterly survey of the Sri Lankan labour force (since 1990),
but despite several reports flagging issues of workplace discrimination
experienced by non-heterosexual and non-cisgender Sri Lankans, it has
also avoided issues relevant to sexual orientation and gender identity
in their questionnaires.

Media

The media plays an important role in perpetuating stigmatisation of
and discrimination against LGBTQ Sri Lankans.

In 1999, a mainstream English language daily and weekend newspaper,
The Island, published an op-ed protesting against a lesbian conference
that was to be held in Colombo.27 At the end of the article, the writer
called for the police to “let loose convicted rapists among the jubilant
but jaded jezebels when their assembly is in full swing so that those
26 Equal Ground. (2012). Towards a Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transexuals and Transgendered (LGBT)
Stigma and Discrimination Index for Sri Lanka. Op. cit.
27 Alles, P. (1999, 20 August). Lesbian Conference in Colombo? The Island

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
25
who are misguided may get a taste of the real thing.”28 A complaint
against the newspaper was lodged with the Sri Lanka Press Council,
averring that the publication of the letter amounted to the promotion
of “sadism, violence or salacity”,29 which is explicitly prohibited under
Rule 9 of the Code of Ethics for Journalists enforced by the council.
However, as Amnesty International reports, “the Press Council refused
to condemn the newspaper and ruled that the author had the right
to offer his point of view, and that his view was justified because
lesbianism is an ‘act of sadism’ and was an offence under the country’s
penal code. The Press Council also stated that lesbianism is ‘at least an
act of gross indecency’ and ‘unnatural’ and that ‘misguided and erratic
women should be corrected and allowed to understand the true sense
and reality of life’.”30 The Council dismissed the complaint and also
ordered the complainant to pay costs on behalf of the respondent. A
prominent gay rights organisation at the time, Companions on a Journey
(COJ), had appeared as complainant.

In 2010, the Daily Mirror, a widely read English language daily in Sri
Lanka, ran a scandalised editorial titled, A tide against the natural…31
describing a conspiracy by “undesirable elements” to “piggy back on
the political dialogue on human rights”. The editorial highlighted that
“controversial moves are being made by groups within the Colombo
social circles along with a few diplomats and leading civil society
figures to create an impression that heterosexuality is an out-dated,
obsolete disposition. Most of these individuals one-time heterosexuals
turn gays. [sic]” In 2011, the Rivira newspaper (a Sinhala language
daily) ran a series of “scathing”32 exposés on the HIV prevention work
of COJ, which had involved the distribution of condoms and lubricant
sachets in specific public spaces pre-identified as “cruising spots”.
Although COJ had been working under the auspices of a GFATM-
funded33 project implemented through the Ministry of Health, as a
response to the pushback generated by the Rivira articles, the office of
the president called for an investigation, intensifying “a sense of fear
28 Ibid.
29 PlanetOut. (2000, 5 June). Sri Lankan’s Media Complaint Backfires. Glapn. www.glapn.org/
sodomylaws/world/sri_lanka/slnews006.htm
30 Amnesty International. (2008). Love, Hate and the Law: Decriminalizing Homosexuality.
London: Amnesty International Publications, 17. d21zrvtkxtd6ae.cloudfront.net/public/
uploads/2016/11/12125724/Love-hate-and-the-low.-Decriminalizing-homosexuality.pdf
31 Liyanaarachchi, C. (2010, 29 July). A tide against the natural... . Daily Mirror. https://
thesakhicollaboration.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/bent-reasoning/
32 Sarma, N., & Billimoria, H. (2013). Strengthening the Role of Media Advocacy in Sri Lanka through
a Critical Analysis of News Media Coverage. Bangkok: UNDP, 13.
www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/rbap/en/home/library/democratic_governance/hiv_aids/
stigma--discrimination-and-key-affected-populations--strengtheni.html
33 funded by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
26
and discrimination… and forcing both the closure and/or suspension
of several NGOs,”34 including, by some accounts, COJ itself.

As Lakbima News, a Sinhala language newspaper, reported, the Rivira
journalist who wrote the series had “hoodwinked a counselling officer
with a concocted personal tale. He befriended the counsellor, took
pictures of [him] and then abused his trust by publishing the pictures
without his consent.”35 The article also reported that the victimised
officer had lost his place of accommodation as a direct result of the
Rivira episode: “I have been kicked out of my boarding place. My
landlord saw my pictures which appeared along with the story in the
newspaper. He showed me the newspaper and asked me to vacate my
room.”36

Post-war context

The climate of stigma and discrimination faced by non-heterosexual
and non-cisgender people is also impacted by the militarisation seen
in Sri Lankan society through three decades of war that ended in 2009.

In 2016, a group of people identifying themselves “as lesbian, gay,
bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTQ), as family members
and friends of LGBTQ people, and as individuals/communities coming
forward in support of Sri Lankans who wish to acknowledge and break
the silence surrounding a people whose rights have been denied
through the mechanisms and institutional structures of a democratic
state”, made a submission to the Zonal Task Force and the Consultation
Task Force for Reconciliation Mechanisms,37 in which they wrote:

“The war created a climate of insecurity which was attributable in
part to decades of militarisation and the resulting breakdown of
democratic norms and the rule of law. Militarisation creates and
boosts very stark models of masculinity and femininity and forces
people into adopting extreme binary gender-conforming roles. This
is particularly limiting for people who do not conform to such gender
roles. In addition, militarisation paves the way for these rigid gender
norms to be connected to reproductive sexuality (where sexuality
is confined to the logic of reproduction – within marriage and the
34 Ibid.
35 Jayasuriya, R. (2011, 6 November). Disgraceful media bigots hound a gay man. Lakbima News.
36 Ibid.
37 Women and Media Collective, (2016, 25 August). Submission on LGBTIQ persons and
transitional justice mechanisms. Groundviews. groundviews.org/2016/08/25/submission-on-
lgbtiq-persons-and-transitional-justice-mechanisms/
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
27
monogamous heteronormative family unit) and its role in the rhetoric of
ethno-nationalism. The difficulty in asserting sexual and gender diversity
and expression that differ from the prescribed norms was evident during
the war and continues today.”38

During wartime (and in the years following), LGBTQ Sri Lankans were
made particularly vulnerable by heightened security in public spaces.
Gender non-conforming people were exposed to risk at checkpoints,
for instance, when their chosen attire or other gender expressions
did not reflect the stated gender in their identification documents.
Such encounters often resulted in harassment and intimidation.39
Government scrutiny of LGBTQ groups and organisations, including
requirements to submit “work plans to the government”,40 was
another way in which LGBTQ people were placed under surveillance by
Sri Lanka’s state security.

38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
40 Ibid.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
28
Section Three
Sexuality and the online space in Sri Lanka

In this section, the findings of the study are organised along the three
main framings of use, access and safety. While the authors analysed
the data, a number of subthemes emerged and each is discussed in
turn and related to one of the framings. The implications of the study’s
findings on Sri Lanka’s legal and policy framework (including the human
rights analysis) will be discussed in the next section. It must be noted
that although the discussion deploys the framings of use, access and
safety, there is significant overlap between those framings in terms of
the issues highlighted.

Figure 05: devices used by survey respondents

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
29
The majority of the survey respondents stated that they use a
combination of devices to access the internet. Over 50% selected “My
own tablet/smart phone, work laptop/desktop” or “My own tablet/
smart phone, My own laptop/desktop”. This may not indicate the socio
economic status of the survey participants; however is an indication of
increased levels of access.

Use: Access to information

Figure 06: respondent’s access to the internet in terms of hours

The internet has significantly improved the ability of LGBTQ Sri Lankans
to access vital information. Previously, the demure silence surrounding
topics of sexuality in Sri Lanka meant that LGBTQ people had few
sources of information on their own sexual orientation or gender
identity. They struggled to understand their place in a social narrative
that assumes all people to be heterosexual and cisgender. Access
to accurate information in such a context can greatly assist them in
coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity.

In interviews with LGBTQ individuals, it was recalled how either they
themselves or others they knew had, having grown up in a time
before the internet, been completely unaware of homosexuality as
a “phenomenon” or a “concept”. Mahela,41 a gay man interviewed
individually, recalled how he had believed for a long time that his same-
sex sexual attraction was unique, and that he was the “only person
in the world” to be going through the experience.42 It was only after
41 All names have been changed, unless context provides otherwise.
42 Interview with Mahela.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
30
he stumbled across the entry for “homosexuality” in an encyclopedia
at home, at the age of 20 in the year 1990, and proceeded to read
further on the subject at the British Council’s library in Colombo, that
he came to appreciate the “commonness” of his nature. He says the
discovery of this information was the first step in a process of self-
acceptance for him. It highlights, for our purposes, the importance
of reliable information for people who struggle to understand their
sexual orientation or gender identity. Mahela also recounts how the
indexing system of the library he visited played a role in his discovery
of further information on homosexuality, he could manually search for
books under categories like “Gay”, “Gay Autobiographies”, etc.

In contrast, Mahela noted how younger LGBTQ Sri Lankans who
had grown up with some access to the internet are less likely to be
unaware of homosexuality or transgenderness. While this may be true,
it must be emphasised that knowledge of the phenomena does not
mean automatic self-acceptance; however, the broader accessibility of
the knowledge that homosexuality and transgenderness is common
all over the world, means that younger LGBTQ Sri Lankans are less
likely to grow up believing they are alone. The internet pierces through
powerful assertions of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in Sri
Lanka, and provides LGBTQ Sri Lankans with various types of vital
information, including scientific advances in understanding human
sexuality, observations of sexual diversity in other species, as well
as the social transformations taking place elsewhere in the world in
terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Moreover, access to
information on the Internet is hugely simplified through the function
of search engines, which index web-content and produce suggestions
to a searched query, ranked according to relevance. In this sense,
search engines are a parallel to Mahela’s experience with the library’s
cataloguing system; younger LGBTQ people benefit from the ready
accessibility of information about sexual orientation through search
engines.

However, the arrival of the internet in Sri Lanka has not normalised
alternative sexual orientations or gender identities in the country.
Media reports and independent research show this is clearly not the
case.43 The internet is generally a ready source of information for those
who seek it, but many who perceive alternative sexual orientations
and gender identities as deviant or unacceptable do not ordinarily seek
out information contradicting those views.
43 See previous Media section in this report.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
31
Non-recognition of alternative orientations and identities creates
obstacles to LGBTQ Sri Lankans’ ability to access information. For
example, where a library does not include cataloguing based on topics
related to these matters, individuals seeking information on such topics
are unable to use that library conveniently. In this context the internet
has transformed the information landscape available to LGBTQ Sri
Lankans. A clear majority of the survey respondents indicated their
use of the internet to access “LGBTQ related news from around the
world”, “LGBTQ themed art (movies, TV shows, stories, etc.)”, “Legal
and policy information related LGBTQ issues in Sri Lanka”, “LGBTQ
organisations”, “Sexually transmitted infections”, and “Safe sex
practices.”

“Have you ever accessed information relating to any of the
following themes on the internet? Select all that apply.”
LGBT related news from around the world 79 93%
LGBT themed art (movies, TV shows, stories, etc.) 67 79%
Legal and policy information related LGBT issues in 68 80%
Sri Lanka
LGBT organisations 62 73%
Sexually transmitted infections 57 67%
Safe sex practices 55 65%
Table 01: Accessing information on the internet

However, despite bringing about an “information revolution”, the
internet is seriously compromised by a large amount of unreliable,
unverified or patently falsified information. This raises issues of
information accuracy and media literacy observed at different levels
even within the sample group surveyed for this study. For instance,
asked to describe the steps they take to ensure that “the information
[they] access on the internet is accurate”, the majority of respondents
indicated they would either read multiple sources to compare
information, or only accept information from “reputed sources”,
with some relying on a combination of both. Worryingly, about 17% of
respondents indicated that they took no steps at all. Some mentioned
checking with friends and even directly contacting relevant persons
to seek verification. While some respondents mentioned preferring
“official” sources, at least one said they would prefer to use government
resources as a source of accurate information.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
32
Most platforms on the internet cater predominantly to an English-
reading audience, with most sources of LGBTQ-related information
being foreign to Sri Lanka. There is a clear need for more resources in
Sinhala and Tamil (Sri Lanka’s two main vernacular languages), as well
as resources that specifically cater to Sri Lankan audiences – at least in
essential areas such as healthcare.

Despite the high preference for “official” sources of information, few
such sources seem to exist, especially catering to a Sri Lankan LGBTQ
audience. The National STD/AIDS Control Programme (NSACP), the
national body in Sri Lanka “responsible for planning and implementing
STI/HIV prevention and control activities”,44 is the only online source this
study could identify as a government source that explicitly recognised
LGBTQ issues; however the quality of discussion and presentation in
the website leaves much to be desired.

44 www.aidscontrol.gov.lk/web/index.php/en/about-us/overview-history

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
33
A review of the NSACP website

I t is beyond the scope of this study to offer a
comprehensive review of the publications available on
the NSACP website; however, some preliminary issues are
flagged from an access-to-information perspective.

The website provides many different types of resources –
spanning a spectrum from informational to administrative
– all under the same, first-level category, “Resources”.
These resources are further organised under a second
level of categorisation that focuses on the formats of
the featured document, differentiating “Publications”,
“Circulars”, “Slides”, “Public Q&A”, etc. Under the sub-
category, “Publications”, annual reports, administrative
reports, research publications etc. are presented side-by-
side with guidelines for male-condom demonstrations and
a “Hospital infection control manual”. A key document
relevant to LGBTQ communities is found in this section,
labelled, “No One Left Behind”,1 which provides a useful
and accessible overview of concepts relating to alternative
sexual orientation and sexual identities (SOGIs). However,
the document’s label lacks context at first glance and is
indistinguishable from others featured in the same section.

Under the sub-category, “Slides”, a number of PowerPoint
presentations and PDFs are available; the links are preceded
by the note, “It is very important to custmize [sic] and
update your presentations according to the target audience.
You can make use of these slides to create your own style of
presentations,”2 giving the strong impression that the target
audience of the resources section is not the general public.
Based on the labelling of the documents available, the
documents most relevant to a SOGI topic are two identical

1 Vidanapathirana, J. et al. (2016). No One Left Behind – Understanding Key populations: Achieving
Triple Zeros by 2030. Nugegoda: National STD/AIDS Control Programme & United Nations
Population Fund. www.aidsdatahub.org/no-one-left-behind-understanding-key-populations-
achieving-triple-zeros-2030-vidanapathirana-jh
2 www.aidscontrol.gov.lk/web/index.php/en/resources/slides

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
34
documents titled, “Men Sex with Men [sic]”,3 each offered
in one of the two vernaculars. The sub-category “Public
Q&A” focuses exclusively on issues surrounding STD
awareness, and does not offer specific acknowledgement or
reassurances to people with alternative SOGIs, despite the
many social factors deterring their access to sexual health
services.

It becomes clear, as one observes the structure and
presentation of the entire “Resources” section, that even
where some state-sanctioned information for LGBTQ Sri
Lankans is available online, that information is not being
disseminated to members of the community (or even the
general public) in any deliberate manner. Documents
relevant to SOGI issues are indistinguishable from those
that are not: none of the documents are accompanied by
explanatory notes, abstracts, preview images, or keywords.
Even though some documents do exist on the website on
LGBTQ issues, they are unreachable through the website’s
own search engine. Not only should all documents be
search-engine optimised, such optimisation should also
ensure that documents in all three languages are accessible
through in-site search functions, and in a way that is mindful
of the difficulties in typing vernacular languages. The
categorisation of resources would do well to abandon its
focus on format to embrace a more substantive, thematic
focus, organised and presented in a manner where those
who need the information the most may access it with
minimum effort. It would also be appropriate to ensure
that the presentation of information does not perpetuate
stigmatisation or discrimination (e.g. highlighting the sexual
act in “Men Sex with Men”, for instance, instead of a more
comprehensive focus on sexual orientation and gender
identity).

3 Ibid.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
35
It is no coincidence that the only official resource from the state
recognising and discussing LGBTQ issues in Sri Lanka is the NSACP.
The government has long viewed LGBTQ individuals from the limited
perspectives of the public health framework, which has cemented
layers of stigma and discrimination, especially through the close
association of LGBTQ Sri Lankans with HIV and other sexually
transmitted infections.

Besides the NSACP, a number of unofficial yet Sri Lanka-specific sources
of information, such as (for example) the Sakhi Collaboration, “Accept
– Sri Lanka”, and Equal Ground, are available online. While Sakhi and
Accept operate on Facebook, Equal Ground maintains its own website
in addition to its social media presence. Sakhi operates through a
personal profile on Facebook, sharing informative posters on LGBTQ
issues, circulating local and international news on the topic, critiquing
mainstream media handling of LGBTQ-related news, as well as creating
informational content, such as a condom-use demonstration through
photos offered in all three45 languages. Unlike Sakhi, Accept operates
through a “page”, allowing any Facebook user to view its content
without sharing their own profiles’ content with the platform. Its
main project seems to be an outreach campaign, featuring LGBTQ-
supportive quotes from well-known Sri Lankan personalities, such as
actors, novelists and human rights activists. The page also features
“memes” incorporating Sri Lankan current affairs, designed in a
manner to promote LGBTQ rights and to challenge established notions
of “cultural” values in the country. The page also circulates local and
international news postings. Unlike Sakhi and Accept, which are both
operated by voluntary “admins” working in their personal capacities,
Equal Ground’s platforms are run by a non-governmental organisation
by the same name, featuring a number of research publications,
periodicals, and advocacy materials, most of it being available in
all three languages. A key limitation of the website is that most
documents may only be opened through a third-party platform (www.
issuu.com), on which both navigation and downloading of documents
are significantly restricted.

Use: Self-expression and identity building

The internet constitutes an unprecedented platform for self-
expression and identity building. More people than ever before are
afforded the ability to express themselves, to share ideas, opinions
and narratives, and to do so through a mixture of mediums, including
45 i.e., English, Tamil & Sinhalese

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
36
words, sounds, images etc. Previous mediums of communication, such
as television, are considered “vertical”, i.e. transmitting from one
person to many others. By contrast, “the use of the internet … is …
horizontal … from many to many.”46 Older communications are also
“oppositional”, involving a “passive mode of reception”,47 whereas
internet communications depend on the will of each individual that
participates in the conversation.

The qualities of the internet mentioned above benefit all people. Yet, to
LGBTQ Sri Lankans they are especially empowering. In a context where
LGBTQ Sri Lankans are silenced and excluded from public discourses,
and where stigma and discrimination against them are perpetuated
through freely circulated and harmful stereotypes, misconceptions
and myths, the Internet affords them the ability to interrogate and
counter prevailing narratives, and to work to expand the public’s
understanding of Sri Lanka’s sexual and gender diversity.

When a group of LGBTQ Sri Lankans and their allies wrote to the Public
Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms (PRC), the full
text of their submissions was subsequently published on Groundviews,
an award winning and widely read citizens’ journalism platform
operating online. In their submission, the signatories identified
themselves as “a community of Sri Lankans who wish to acknowledge
and break the silence surrounding a people whose rights have been
denied through the mechanisms and institutional structures of a
democratic state.”48

In addition to disrupting this imposed silence, online self-expressions by
LGBTQ Sri Lankans also have the ability, merely by existing, to broaden
the space for (and participation of) LGBTQ voices in public discourses.
As signatories to another, similar submission to the PRC asserted, “we
come with the authority of our own lived realities as [LGBTQ] persons,

46 Tubella, I. (2005). Television and Internet in the construction of Identity. In M. Castells and
G. Cardoso, G (Eds.), The Network Society From Knowledge to Policy. Washington DC: Johns
Hopkins Centre for Transatlantic Relations,.
La Rue, F. (2011). Op. cit., 13: “The Internet should ... be seen as a complementary medium to
mass media that has been based on a one-way transmission of information.”
47 Ibid. text accompanying note 3.
48 Groundviews. (2016, 28 March). A Meaningful Right to Equality and Non-Discrimination:
Recognising Sexual and Gender Identities. Groundviews. groundviews.org/2016/03/28/a-
meaningful-right-to-equality-and-non-discrimination-recognising-sexual-and-gender-identities/.
Emphasis added.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
37
with the hope that speaking our truth to power will give way to the
creation of a space where others like us can follow suit.”49

Social media is a crucial development in this function of the Internet.
Mitya, a trans woman participating in the focus group discussion,
described how she uses her Instagram account to express what being
a trans woman means to her. She uses images of herself to spread the
idea that “#transisbeautiful”, noting that when more people see more
images of her expressing her trans identity, this increases the impact
she can have on normalising trans people in society and showcasing
how they are beautiful, too. According to her, while there needs to
be a balance between posting naked photos and ones of being fully
clothed, she believes that “uncovering” her body and presenting her
nudity is an important part of her message of de-stigmatising trans
bodies, which she does not shy away from. With nearly five thousand
followers on Instagram from all over the world, her message is not
limited to changing Sri Lankan attitudes, but those of the whole world.
On the other hand, Sachintha, a gay man participating in the FGD,
also uses social media, especially Facebook, to publicly share LGBTQ-
related content and engage in conversations on LGBTQ rights in Sri
Lanka. However, he was careful not to overstate his expectations: “I
don’t expect a huge revolution to happen from sharing such content;
I don’t have some grand, conscious intention or motivation behind
sharing publicly; I do it, and sometimes there could be some small
benefit coming out of someone else seeing that post, or engaging in a
conversation about it.”

However, though the Internet has great potential in empowering
LGBTQ self-expression and social engagement, that potential is limited
by how many LGBTQ Sri Lankans censor themselves online and on
social media in various ways. Nearly 46% of those responding to the
survey indicated they share LGBTQ-related content “publicly” on their
social media profiles. Not all respondents are as forthright in their
sexual or gender expressions on social media: 18% indicated they share
LGBTQ-related content under limited visibility settings, limiting visibility
to either “friends” or specific friend “circles” or “lists”; still another 13%
of respondents indicated that, though they rarely share such content
on their own profile feeds, they do share the same within specific
groups; 22% said they would “never share LGBTQ-related content” on
their own profiles.
49 Queerrightslka. (2016, 14 March). On the Constitutional Rights of LGBTQIA Individuals.
Queerightslka. queerightslka.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/on-the-constitutional-rights-of-lgbtiqa-
individuals/

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
38
I share LGBT-related content publicly on my profile 39 46%
feed (e.g. wall, timeline).
I share LGBT-related content on my profile feed, but 15 18%
I limit visibility to my “friends”, or specific “friend”
circles/lists.
I never share LGBT-related content on my own profile 19 22%
feed.
I share LGBT-related content within specific groups, 11 13%
but rarely on my own profile feed.

Table 02: Sharing information on social media

Posts on one’s own profile or on groups is not the only way a person
may speak out about SOGI issues on social media. Another important
site of social media engagement is the comments sections under
individual posts. There, a user has much less control over who sees and
reacts to what they share on social media.

Facebook, for example, allows users to control the privacy of their own
posts, but the same level of control is not available for one’s comments
and reactions under someone else’s post. Instead, Facebook actively
broadcasts comments and reactions to an audience beyond those who
are immediately engaged in the conversation, by pulling the comment
or reaction out of its original context and featuring it as a snippet in
others’ news-feeds. Since only the specific comment or reaction of a
larger conversation is featured in such a manner, users coming across
the comment on their news-feeds are required to click and expand
the entire conversation to understand the full context. Twitter, on the
other hand, does not incorporate a comments section at all; instead,
those who wish to respond to an individual post (aka a “tweet”) must
create their own post as a reply, causing an automatic link to the
original post, and thus creating a “conversation” consisting of multiple,
individual posts. Often, when a user makes a reply to a “trending”
post, their followers are notified of this act in a “Digest” of trending
activity. Instagram also features a similar, Digest-like page; however,
a user must actively navigate to this page if they wish to view other
users’ activity. By contrast, on Facebook, such updates appear on the
main page of the platform, and on Twitter, the updates are “tailored”
for individual users and delivered to them as generic notifications.

Thus, LGBTQ Sri Lankans are less likely to comment on and engage
with others’ posts if they feel their words will be broadcast to more
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
39
people than they intend. Indeed, while 31% of respondents stated
they would mention their sexual orientation or gender identity in
posts and comments in any situation they felt like, an equal number of
respondents said they would “never” mention their SOGI in posts and
comments. Of the respondents, 38% would only mention their SOGI “in
certain limited circumstances”, whereas 4% said they maintain a SOGI
that is “different to what [they] privately identify with”. All responses
were in relation to posts and comments made on “real” profiles
(i.e. profiles featuring respondents’ “real”50 names and/or images of
themselves).

I would mention my sexual orientation and/or gender identity in
my social media posts and/or comments…
…in any situation that I feel like mentioning it in 26 31%
…in certain limited circumstances 32 38%
I would never mention my sexual orientation and/ 24 28%
or gender identity in my social media posts and/or
comments
I maintain a sexual orientation and/or gender identity 3 4%
in my social media posts and comments that is
different to what I privately identify with
Table 03: mentioning of SOGI online

Figure 07: Personal details shared publicly on social media profile

50 In this study, “real name” was defined as “how you introduce yourself to most people” and
distinguished from a legal name, which was defined as “your given name in the birth certificate
and other documents”.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
40
Similarly, the number of respondents who include their sexual
orientation in their public profiles is relatively low; more respondents
share their phone number publicly than share their sexual orientation.
While a considerable number of respondents share their gender
identity, the lack of sufficient participation of trans Sri Lankans in the
survey makes it impossible to draw conclusions on gender expression
based on the data.

Asked whether they limit their social media participation (posts and
comments) fearing a number of specified factors, the respondents
reported as follows:

In terms of the social media profiles that include your real name
and/or images of yourself, do you limit your participation on
social media (posts and comments) fearing any of the following
factors? Please choose three most relevant choices.
I am afraid of other people finding out about my 22 26%
sexual orientation or gender identity
I am afraid of what other people’s comments 16 19%
would be
I am not interested in displaying my sexual 29 34%
orientation or gender identity
I am not sure whether it is legal to post such topics 5 6%
I am afraid it might result in violence against me in 15 18%
the physical world
I am afraid the government might find out about 5 64%
my sexual orientation or gender identity
I am afraid it might affect my job 15 18%
I don’t think anybody should talk about their 5 6%
sexuality and gender issues on social media
platforms
Table 04: including real name / images online

Eight of the respondents, however, felt that the question did not apply
to them. Two others opted to provide their own answers, and stated,
“I am worried about the stigma my family may face if I am open about
my sexuality”, and “I’m worried about what my colleagues’, friends’,
and relatives’ comments would be,” respectively. One respondent also
stated, simply, that, “I participate where I feel okay to participate in
‘those’ discussions.”

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
41
Self-censorship extends to the creation and use of anonymous
profiles. An important phenomenon among LGBTQ Sri Lankans is the
widespread use of anonymous and pseudonymous profiles to navigate
stigma and discrimination on social media.

All of my I have many I only I only I don’t
profiles on profiles; have one have one have any
the same only one profile per profile per profiles
TOTAL = 85

platform or some of platform. platform. on any
feature my profiles It features But it does social
my real feature my my real not include media
name and/ real name name and/ my real platform.
or images and/or or images name and/
of my images of of my face. or images
face. my face. of myself.
I have more
than one
profile,
but not for 7 6 0 0 0
any reason
related to
my SOGI
I have more
than one
profile, for
reasons
related to 7 11 0 0 0
my sexual
orientation
or gender
identity.
I don’t have
more than
one profile
0 0 54 0 0
on any
social media
platform.
Table 05: number of profiles per individual online

From an analysis of the survey data, it is clear that all respondents had
at least one profile with their “real” name and images of themselves. If
any of them had profiles without their real name or face pictures, such
profiles were always in addition to a “real” profile. Nearly a quarter of
the respondents indicated they have more than one profile on their
preferred social media platform, for a reason related to their SOGI.
This is 18 out of 85 eligible responses. Of them, 7 respondents said all
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
42
their profiles on the same platform featured either their real name or
portrait, or both. The other 11 indicated that, “only one or some …
profiles feature my real name and/or images of my face”. Another 15%
of the respondents said they have more than one profile, but not for
any reason related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The
majority, 64% (54) of the respondents, only had one profile on their
preferred social media platform, which included their real name and/
or images of their face.

Because my sexual orientation is considered to be 16 19%
illegal.
Because I am afraid of my family finding out about my 14 16%
sexual orientation or gender identity.
Because I am afraid of my friends finding out about my 14 16%
sexual orientation or gender identity.
Because I am afraid of my employer or work colleagues 13 15%
finding out about my sexual orientation or gender
identity.
I do not have any profiles that do not include my real 47 55%
name and images of myself.

Table 06: use of profiles that don’t feature their real name or image

Respondents could select more than one standard answer, as well as
provide their unique answers. One such unique response asserted, “It
is almost impossible to find people for sexual encounters in using real
profile.” Another user-typed answer stated, “to be outspoken about
things (e.g., to post content such as a very bad review on a restaurant,
a service provider etc.).” Two respondents also stated, “for stalking
purposes,” while one of them also added, “spying”

There were a number of difficulties in framing the questions on “fake”
and “real” profiles, though those labels were frequently heard during
the research interviews across a spectrum, from LGBTQ activists to
law enforcement officials. The main difficulty was in how different
individuals had different criteria for what amounted to a “fake profile”.
The most common criterion was whether the profile was under the
person’s real name or not, but this is clearly inadequate from the
perspective of LGBTQ issues in Sri Lanka, where some LGBTQ people
have adopted names for themselves that are different to what was
given them at birth. To such individuals, the newer name was more

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
43
“real” than the older one. This is especially true of trans Sri Lankans.
On the other hand, some discussants at the focus group discussion and
individual interviews (all of them, incidentally, gay men) said they had
multiple profiles under their given names and with images of their face,
with one profile maintaining a heterosexual performance to friends
and relatives who did not know the person’s true sexual orientation,
while the other was to maintain existing friendships as well as find
new friendships within the LGBTQ community. For such individuals,
the “fake” profile was the heterosexual one. However, to those who
maintained an anonymous, or pseudonymous profile without images
of their face, their “straight” profile was the real profile, usually
because it was the only profile with their name, their face picture, and
their friends and relatives from the physical world.

For these reasons, in the section of the survey comparing “real” profiles
with “fake” profiles, the first question was a statement to either agree
with or disagree with: “My real name (how I introduce myself to most
people) is the same as my legal name (the given name in the birth
certificate, etc.),” with the implication that all other questions referring
to the “real” name relied on this definition (how one introduces
themselves to most people). All but five respondents said their real
name was the same as their legal name. Since the concepts of “real
name” and “legal name” were most relevant to the trans community,
responses were also cross-tabulated with the gender identification of
respondents: four of the five respondents who indicated that their real
name was different from their legal name were “Male,” whereas one
respondent was “Trans MTF.” The gender identifications of all other
respondents (i.e. those who said their real name and legal name were
the same) are disaggregated as follows: female (30), male (45), gender
non-identifying (2), trans MTF (1), and trans FTM (1).

Rajesh is a gay man who participated in the focus group discussion.
Being Tamil, he has a relatively longer and more formal given name
that he does not use in his everyday dealings. He said, “On Facebook,
I have two profiles. One is under my given name, which is where I add
my family members and family friends; but all my friends from the
community associate me through a second profile which is under the
shorter name that everybody knows me by. If someone from my family
sends me a request on the second profile, I quickly add them from the
other profile where all the family members and family friends are.”

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
44
Similarly, Manju, a trans man participating in the focus group discussion,
recounted how he has three profiles, each created for a specific purpose,
and each of them featuring his face and the name he adopted after his
physical transition. He explained the purpose of each as follows: “One
profile is to engage and link up with members of the community; one
profile is to network and remain in touch with different activists and
organisers I have met through attending international conferences on
LGBTQ issues. The reason I separate these two purposes is because
I need to use English with my international colleagues, but I want to
connect with my community through Sinhala. My third profile is for a
completely different reason: I engage in some personal animal welfare
work, and I promote animal welfare issues there, and the profile is very
useful for that work. Because the animal welfare audience is different
from the LGBTQ community, I don’t want posts I would make about
LGBTQ issues to have an effect on my ability to talk about animal issues,
or how what I say is received by that audience.”

It was observed during interviews as well as the focus group discussion,
that many individuals regarded the notion of “fake profiles” with either
disapproval or at least disdain. In an interview with an officer of the
Cyber Crimes Unit, when asked about the kinds of situations in which
the police carry out surveillance on social media profiles, the most
immediate answer was “fake profiles”. This was explicitly qualified
when he added that the police do not crack down on fake profiles in
general, but only on those profiles regarding which complaints had
been made for “harassment”, “extortion”, etc. Krishna, a gay man
participating in the FGD argued at some length that, “Fake profiles are
not progressive.” Similarly, in an individual interview with David, who
is a gay man, reference was made to how fake profiles were usually
a double-edged sword. According to him, anonymous profiles allow
individuals to express themselves without any accountability, and
sometimes this can have a negative reflection on the “movement” for
LGBTQ rights in Sri Lanka. He also mentioned how he was part of an
online LGBTQ community initiative that actively cracked down on “fake
profiles” that posted nude content publicly on Facebook, especially
when such profiles interacted with their initiative’s dedicated profile.
The measures taken against such profiles included, first, engaging with
them one-on-one through the Facebook profile to encourage them to
stop posting such content and, second, to report their content and/or
profiles to Facebook’s community standards mechanism.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
45
Use: Forming and maintaining relationships

Meeting each other has always been difficult for Sri Lankan LGBTQ
people, and continues to be so even today. Rampant stigma and
discrimination, and the associated fears of exposure, exclusion, and
harm, deter many LGBTQ Sri Lankans from publicly seeking out the
company and friendship of others who think and feel like them. The
lack of tolerant, safe spaces to meet and socialise with each other
exacerbates this issue; public spaces are heavily policed for “decency”
in Sri Lanka, even for heterosexual couples,51 but unlike for them,
people perceived to be “homosexual” face the possibility of arrest,
or at least extortion under threat of arrest. Such prohibitive realities
force many LGBTQ people to navigate public spaces with extreme
care, exerting an adverse effect on their willingness and ability to seek
out friendships and relationships with other members of the LGBTQ
community.

Before the Internet became accessible for general consumption in
1995, LGBTQ Sri Lankans arguably experienced these constraints more
intensely than they do now.52 Through the focus group discussion, as
well as individual interviews, it appeared that – beyond serendipity
– there were not many ways LGBTQ people could meet each other,
especially not in the way heterosexual Sri Lankans were able to.

Cruising is one way gay and bisexual men met each other,53 but such
encounters generally tended to be hurried, spontaneous, anonymous,
with the main (if not the only) purpose of the encounter being the
performance of a sexual act.54 Drop-in centres and social gatherings
organised by LGBTQ advocacy groups, including lesbian support
groups,55 were another way LGBTQ Sri Lankans met each other. Luke, a
long-time member of the now-defunct Companions on a Journey (COJ),
speaking at the focus group discussion, recounted how there were
monthly community meetings, especially for newcomers, held every
51 See, for instance, Piyumi Fonseka, P. (2016, 06 March). Occupy the Square against removal of
couple. Daily Mirror. www.dailymirror.lk/106449/-Occupy-the-Square-against-removal-of-couple
and (2010, 10 June). Sri Lanka arrests kissing couples. The Courier Mail. www.
couriermail.com.au/news/breaking-news/sri-lanka-arrests-kissing-couples/news-story/
c6aec24aed22e6924834b02833d4469e
52 Interview with Mahela.
53 Interview with David. Cruising is the practice of loitering in public spaces, such as parks,
shopping malls, or public toilets, for the purpose of meeting another cruiser or passerby who
may be interested in a casual sexual encounter.
54 No negative value judgment of quick, anonymous sexual encounters is intended; the only
intended implication is that such encounters were not conducive to the formation of long-
lasting friendships and other relationships.
55 Interview with Maryanne.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
46
Poya Day (a public holiday in Sri Lanka on account of a full moon). Even
though the meetings were held for “newcomers”, older members
were also “so excited” to meet them, and would attend the meetings,
too­– sometimes to the point of straining the organisation’s capacity
to host the events. Both requests to be invited and the invitations
themselves were communicated via the general post. Luke described
the process in some detail: “Those days, it wasn’t like now, it wasn’t so
easy to meet another gay man, so there was a kind of desperation. We
used to promote our organisation, different members appeared a few
times on TV and radio to talk about the organisation, and this would set
off many letters, people secretly reaching out to us, asking if there are
any events they could attend. We kept a list of addresses and always
informed them of the next date and venue of the social gathering
through letters. We didn’t use letter-heads or official envelopes, the
letters were always plain, made to look like personal letters from
friends, simply giving the details of a time and place to meet up, the
way any letter from a friend could those days. There were so many who
came to those social gatherings, more than a hundred at a time even,
and we could hardly manage the space.”

The arrival of the Internet allowed members of the community to
form and sustain relationships in ways that were not possible until
then. According to the focus group discussion, general chat rooms
saw their use by gay and bisexual men to meet each other as early as
the mid 1990s. Spanning international brands such as Yahoo! as much
as local brands like kaputa.com, these chat rooms allowed individuals
to sign in anonymously with a username and engage in conversations
carried out by all members of the room, or to initiate conversations
between individual users privately. On Kaputa, users also had the
option of creating a temporary, single-use username, which assured
optimum anonymity. Around this time, a chat room service specifically
designed for the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community was launched, known
as Sri Connect. Though the service was considered successful and was
well-received by members of the community, it appears the platform
eventually ran into problems with the law and was discontinued.
According to Deshan, a gay man participating in the FGD, another,
more recent way to meet each other was “chain SMS meetups”, where
one person would initiate an SMS specifying a location, usually a public
space, with a time to meet up, and this SMS would be forwarded by
recipients to other recipients.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
47
The ability to maintain friendships and relationships is just as important
as forming them, and “keeping in touch”56 is an important part of
that process. Before the internet, methods of communication in Sri
Lanka presented many obstacles to maintaining a new friendship
between two or more LGBTQ persons. Methods such as “snail mail”,
fixed landlines, mobile phones, and even the rare email account, came
with technical and economic limitations that added to the reality of
stigma and discrimination to dissuade LGBTQ people from relying on
them. Mobile phones were prohibitively expensive;57 fixed landlines
had months-long (if not years-long) waiting lists. Email addresses
were available usually through one’s place of employment. The most
commonly available means of communication, i.e. posted letters
and phone calls to land lines, were almost always shared with family
members or other housemates, since such services were provided at
the level of the household, and not at the level of the individual. This
meant that LGBTQ people, who generally fear exposure especially
to family members, were deterred from relying on such methods of
communication to maintain friendships and relationships with other
LGBTQ people because of privacy concerns.

Today, online platforms that facilitate the formation and sustenance
of relationships constitute a diverse landscape. From social media
accounts to online personal ads, many people use the internet as a
means to meeting new people, particularly for physical and emotional
relationships. In Sri Lanka, and within the LGBTQ community,
social media platforms such as Facebook loom large. The ability to
share content and socialise online, the ability to carry on private
conversations away from the wider online community, the ease with
which new connections can be made, and the considerably large
network of anonymous LGBTQ profiles that exist on Facebook, mean
that such social media platforms provide a convenient and (mostly)
safe alternative to the risks of socialising and seeking partners in the
physical world, which is remarkably hostile to sexuality and gender
minorities.

In addition to social media platforms, however, applications specifically
designed for “dating” and “hooking up” have also emerged, combining
geo-positioning technology with photo-sharing and instant messaging
technologies, allowing individuals to meet each other based on a
56 Perhaps relevantly, “keep in touch” (KIT) was the brand slogan for what became the fastest-
growing prepaid mobile phone service in the early 2000s.
57 Gunawardane, N., & Wattegama, C. (2001). Internet in Sri Lanka: The First Five Years. in S.
Ramanathan & J. Becker (Eds.), Internet in Asia. Singapore: Asian Media Information and
Communication Centre

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
48
combination of their preferences and their physical proximity to
each other. While most such platforms exist for people of all sexual
orientations and gender identities, platforms specifically targeting
LGBTQ people also exist. These platforms, especially in a context
where LGBTQ Sri Lankans do not have access to public spaces in the
physical world as social and sexual beings, have proved to be useful in
multiple ways.

Non-identifying
Trans M to F
Trans F to M
Thinking about dating and hook-up

Female
platforms (Tinder etc.), please select all

Male

Total
the statements relevant to you.
I have found friends on such platforms.
38 5 2 0 1 46

I have found partners for sexual
36 4 0 0 1 40
encounters on such platforms.
I am in or have had a romantic
relationship with someone I met on such 18 4 1 0 1 21
a platform.
I left those platforms because I did not
9 7 0 0 0 13
find them useful.
I have never been on such platforms. 4 11 0 1 1 13
I have attended events promoted/
8 1 0 0 1 9
communicated on such platforms.
I promote events organised by me
or someone I know through such 5 1 1 0 0 6
platforms.
I find clients for commercial sex work on
1 1 0 0 0 2
such platforms.

Table 07: online dating platforms

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
49
Use: Community organising

The internet also has great potential in serving community organising
efforts, especially in a context where a movement exists for the repeal
of persecutory laws and other policy reforms. Social media platforms
and instant messaging services, for instance, have proved useful in
community outreach efforts by LGBTQ activists. Many such activists
participating in the FGD indicated the use of such platforms to spread
awareness on various issues, as well as to provide vital information to
members of the community.

Kavinga, a gay man who is active in the field of HIV prevention and
awareness efforts, mentioned how his visibility on social media as an
openly gay and HIV-positive activist attracts many personal messages
requesting information on issues surrounding HIV, such as locations of
gay friendly clinics and other services.

Similarly, Manju, a trans man active in the field of FTM trans issues
related how individuals needing information on hormonal therapy or
contacts of issue-sensitive doctors have reached out to him privately
through Facebook, as a result of his visibility through his multiple
Facebook accounts.

Rajesh, Luke and Krishna, all gay men participating in the FGD,
mentioned the various ways in which they had used social media to
reach and inform LGBTQ Sri Lankans of events organised by their
groups and organisations.

Facebook also provides a platform for community discussions in the
form of “groups”. A key benefit in this regard is the levels of privacy
afforded to groups: whereas “open” groups are public with posts and
discussions being broadcast in others’ news-feeds, “closed” groups
are more limited, with posts and discussions only being visible to
members, though the group itself and its membership is visible to
anyone who searches for the group. “Secret” groups, on the other
hand, are completely hidden, and their discussions are only visible to
the members. Secret groups are also unsearchable, and new members
can only be added by current administrators of the group. (Open
and closed groups, on the other hand, allow anyone to either join or
request to join, respectively.) These features are highly useful to the Sri
Lankan LGBTQ community, allowing them to strategically use available
online discussions spaces, to control the audiences of their various

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
50
discussions, as well as to encourage otherwise hesitant members of
the community to join in conversations about various initiatives and
incidents without censoring themselves. In this regard, however, a key
concern is that, while secret groups are the most useful in the context
of LGBTQ Sri Lankans, that category of groups also affords a significant
amount of moderating powers to group admins, allowing them to
choose new members, ban current members, and even delete posts.
While these functions are essential, they have the potential to lead to
arbitrary decisions, which can be, in the context of the nascence of
the Sri Lankan LGBTQ movement, detrimental. Another concern is the
fact that most Facebook groups are highly conducive to discussions in
English, whereas discussions in Sinhala or Tamil require the taking of
additional steps on the part of the discussants. This may have an impact
on the participation levels and inclusiveness of many discussions that
take place in such groups.

During the FGD, however, an intense debate emerged on the possibility
of adverse impacts on the LGBTQ movement in Sri Lanka from the
spread of Internet use in community organising efforts.

The crux of the proposition was that online participation in LGBTQ
activism only encourages a certain superficial level of engagement.
Mitya, a trans woman, framed this argument as follows: “There is a
regression in community organising because of the internet. A majority
are only heroes on social media. They are very forward on social media,
whether it is to speak up or to have sex, but they don’t come out to
speak up. The arrival of social media means that people no longer
come together. Everybody only speaks from the outside, from their
own comfort zones. This affects the involvement, there’s an emotional
contact that is missing. They all sort out their own needs from within
their own comfort zones, and talk about whatever issues from their
social media profiles, but they don’t come out and get involved; only
a few put their necks on the line and speak up and try to organise and
make a change, but if something goes wrong, they would be on their
own, and everybody else will remain hiding behind their social media
profiles.”

Manju said, “Participation in community events is declining because,
with the demands of peoples’ busy lives, they settle for social
media interactions with the community as the adequate level of
interconnection. This affects the movement; the movement has certain
targets, a struggle for attaining ‘freedom’; this can’t be achieved when

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
51
everybody is at home posting on Facebook. Where’s the strength
in our demands, if we can’t even show a photo of more than 10 or
15 people at an event? But, at the same time, there are some things
that you can’t talk about, face to face: private things, secret things,
individual issues. For those, Facebook is ideal. Even in the trans FTM
community, this happens. They reach out to us to ask about hormonal
therapy, how to grow a beard, which doctor to meet, and that’s all –
then they disappear, and you never hear from them again. They make
use of us for their personal needs, but they don’t understand how their
indifference and apathy to the community’s needs affects them and
everybody else.”

Deshan provided an interesting perspective on how social media has
undercut the relevance of LGBTQ organisations. “Social media is ideal
for individual users. Individual needs can easily be served through
Facebook, all the way up to a hook-up. But if you talk about the
movement, there’s a conflict between that benefit and the interests of
the community. In the 1990s, gay organisations had more membership
than today, and more participation in their events, even when those
days the climate was more dangerous for the community. This is
because social gatherings and other events by organisations were one
of the few ways that we could meet each other. Now, membership
in organisations and participation in their events has rapidly declined.
Because the community can meet each other directly, online, through
fake profiles etc. They don’t need organisations any more. But the
issue is making friends privately won’t build a community, and building
a community is important for securing the rights of everybody. But
people don’t realise this, because their individual needs are being met.”

However, an alternative viewpoint came from Duminda, a gay man.
He was of the view that, “Comparison with the past is futile; we can’t
get trapped in nostalgia; the reality is that the internet is here and has
changed the environment. We need to figure out how to make use
of the internet for the movement in the present.” Similarly, Krishna,
also a gay man, said, “We don’t need to be pessimistic about the
role social media can play in the movement; it is enough to simply
say the role needs to be diversified. For example, in the most recent
movie gathering we had, there were 50 people, and 30 of them were
newcomers. There were also some that had known each for many
years through social media without ever meeting in person, and the
movie night was the first time they met. Social media [and the internet]
provides useful tools. It is up to community leaders and organisations

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
52
to make use of them to strengthen the movement and bring people
together. There needs to be a balance between what we do on social
media and what we do in the physical world. If it is a purely ‘virtual’ or
‘online’ struggle for equality, it’s not going to work out. Bringing the
struggle to the physical world is a must. But that doesn’t mean online
spaces have no role to play.”

Safety: Safety of content
A major stumbling block in the use and enjoyment of the internet is
the lack of security for content stored and shared on the Internet.
LGBTQ Sri Lankans, because of their general vulnerability to stigma and
discrimination, suffer acutely from this insecurity.

During the FGD, a number of such experiences came to light. Deshan,
a gay man who was involved in the production of a Youth LGBTQ
video within the Asia-Pacific region with his partner, recounted how
their private photos were used in political pages attacking the sitting
prime minister, captioning the photos with questions like “Do you
want your children to be like this?”. Deshan said, “They used our
pictures politically and it went around on Facebook. So I had to remove
everyone except my close friends from my profile. Even now I don’t
put a picture of my partner and myself as the profile picture because
it attracts unnecessary trouble. It doesn’t matter to us personally, but
it affects our family, nephews and nieces, it can affect their future,
especially their married life, so I have to be careful.” Luke, another gay
man, recounted a similar experience: “Once someone used a picture
of me and one of my colleagues celebrating the first day at office by
the traditional ritual of boiling milk in a pot. The picture was widely
circulated on social media with the caption, ‘two homosexuals boil
milk.’ They said we were trying to be cultural while destroying the
culture because we are gay.” Mitya, a trans woman, recounted how
someone had attempted to blackmail her with her Instagram posts:
“Someone took screenshots of my Instagram photos and threatened
to publish them as a porn star. I told them to go ahead and publish it
because I had already put them on Instagram for everyone to see. They
tried to blackmail me, but at the end it stopped. If we get scared, they
try to push it more.”

While the homophobic/transphobic slant in these incidents is clear,
sometimes such incidents originate from within the Sri Lankan
LGBTQ community, too. Rajesh, for instance, recounted the following
incident: “Once a drag party I participated in was photographed and
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
53
put on Facebook. I received many calls from different people who had
seen my drag pictures online. So I immediately called [a senior police
official who was a friend of mine] and told him what had happened.
He advised me to make a complaint to the Peliyagoda police station.
But then, I don’t know who specifically did it, but I knew it had to be
someone from our own community. If we went to the police they will
get into trouble. So I decided not to.”

Mayantha, also a gay man, recounted how his phone was added to a
Viber group (of gay and bi men) without his consent by an unknown
person. “Then someone shared a picture I had shared privately with
my ex-boyfriend and asked me if that was me. This was someone
completely unknown to me. I have no idea how this random guy got
that picture. For me it was a threat to my career, because I work in the
media.”

According to Deshan, such violations of privacy are not only carried out
by members of the community, but even organisations that purport
to work for LGBTQ rights in Sri Lanka: “Some organisations publish
photos of their events with community members but they do not ask
for consent. It happened to me personally also.” He also indicated that
such an organisation violated a non-disclosure agreement signed with
him by publishing a video interview he participated in on YouTube.

Safety: Safety of devices

In addition to content shared through the internet, individuals also have
negative experiences and/or fears of negative experiences in terms of
content stored in devices (i.e. potential risks even where content is not
shared with someone else, but is consumed privately).

At the focus group discussion, Mitya highlighted the risks of using
electronic devices to store important content. “We save our passwords
on mobile apps. If we lose the phone, whoever finds it can access
everything that we were doing on the phone. We don’t logout from
phone apps. How many apps do we use? It’s impossible to logout of
all of them, one by one, every day. I have a pattern-lock on my touch-
screen, but it is very easy to crack because the pattern is visible as a
smear on the screen.”

In Sri Lanka, a trend has emerged where many phone repairmen extract
intimately private content on their customers’ phones and distribute

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54
it on the internet. The fear imposed by such incidents pervades the
LGBTQ community as well. For instance, at the focus group discussion
Deshan explained his fear of repairing a broken tablet: “I have a tab
where the screen broke recently. But I can’t give it to be repaired,
because it has all the pictures of my vows’ ceremony with my partner.
I am scared that the pictures will go public if I gave it to someone to
repair.”

Insecurity of devices is also related to arbitrary policing. Sayuri, a trans
woman who also happens to be a commercial sex worker, indicated
that the police checked her phone while she was standing on the road.
“When the police jeep stopped in front of me, and asked to go through
my phone, what else can I do? They wanted to look at my photos, so
I said that they can only check my gallery. There were nude photos in
the gallery, but they didn’t say anything. They went through everything
and gave it back to me and drove off.”

A related issue in terms of devices is the location of the device. As
will be discussed under the “Access” section below, various reasons
compel individuals to use devices that do not personally belong to
them. In such cases, LGBTQ Sri Lankans can be particularly vulnerable
in terms of their privacy. As Mitya explained, “If we use Facebook at
the office desk, anyone can fiddle with our account when we are not at
the table. If we are trying to keep our identity secret, this becomes a
huge problem; anyone who comes to our seat can see what we do. If I
had a dating site open, they would see that also.”

Rajesh recounted similar concerns in terms of internet cafes: “Once at
an internet cafe, as soon as my friend who was using the computer next
to me finished up and left, the owner of the cafe came and checked the
browsing history. When I looked at him, he said that my friend always
looks at the same thing. I asked him what his problem was to look into
someone else’s browsing history. Then he said sometimes the police
comes and checks the history and questions him. So he checks the
history and deletes it if there is anything unnecessary. I stopped going
to that cafe after that experience.”

Krishna, a gay man who is also an academic in a public university,
recounted how he censors his online communications, even on his
own devices, if the device is connected to a university network. He
explained, “When we access the internet from a shared network at the
office there is a possibility of others seeing my chats. So I choose not

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55
to say certain things via my office network, especially if it’s related to
my LGBTQ activism. You never know who the network administrator
is, but you know that they are monitoring the content. So I have to be
discreet when using my devices on their network.”

Safety: Adverse online experiences

As is evident, the online space, especially social media platforms,
can be remarkably hostile to sexuality and gender minorities. These
hostilities stifle the full use and enjoyment of the internet by LGBTQ
Sri Lankans; many LGBTQ Sri Lankans either censor themselves or are
forced to resort to pseudonymous profiles in their daily use of online
platforms. Based on the above discussion on safety issues at the FGD,
the questionnaire listed a number of adverse online experiences and
asked respondents to indicate which of them they or someone they
knew personally had experienced. (Note that the listed experiences
were not exhaustive, and were representative of issues emerging from
the FGD and, to some extent, the literature review.) The results were
as follows:

Have you experienced or personally known someone who
experienced any of the following. Please select all that apply.
Online harassment (bullying, name-calling, condemnation, 49 58%
etc.)
Pictures exposing your or someone else’s sexual 37 44%
orientation/gender identity posted online or shared with a
third party without consent
Sexual orientation or gender identity being publicised 35 41%
online without consent
Verbal threats to do any of the above 35 41%
Videos exposing your or someone else’s sexual 27 32%
orientation/gender identity posted online or shared with a
third party without consent
The experience of violence in the physical world 17 20%
I have not experienced any of the above. 24 28%
Law enforcement officials checking a person’s mobile 11 13%
phone, laptop, internet account etc. without their
consent
I don’t know anyone who has experienced any of the 4 5%
above.
Table 08: adverse online experiences

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Only one of the participants had not heard of anyone who has
experienced any form of online violence mentioned in the survey and
only 24 participants said they have never experienced any form of
violence online themselves. “Online harassment” is the most frequent
form of violence experienced or witnessed by the respondents, while
exposing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity by using pictures is
the second highest response. Of the participants 20% have experienced
or personally know someone who has experienced violence in
the physical world based on online content related to their sexual
orientation or gender identity, 41% have experienced or know someone
who has experienced “outing” without their consent, while 13% have
experienced or personally know someone who has experienced law
enforcement officials checking their digital devices.

What are the platforms mostly impacted by the experiences you
identified above.
Facebook 67 79%
Dating apps specially designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual 15 18%
or trans People
FB Messenger 14 16%
Whatsapp 11 13%
LGBT groups 7 8%
LGBT-themed blogs 5 6%
Viber 4 5%
Email 4 5%
Discussion forums 4 5%
This question is not applicable to me 9 11%
Instagram 3 4%
General dating apps, such as Tinder 3 4%
Imo 2 2%
Twitter 1 1%
Snapchat 1 1%
Table 09: online platforms associated with identified experiences

In response 79% of participants identified Facebook as the platform
mostly impacted by the identified experiences. (Indeed, Facebook
use has a high prevalence in Sri Lanka, with over 3.5 million Facebook

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57
users and counting. All participants (100%) said they use Facebook
frequently, with Whatsapp coming in at a close second (82.1%).)
Dating apps designed for LGBT people are the second most impacted
platforms according to the data; however, at 20%, the gap of frequency
between the most impacted and second-most impacted platforms is
worthy of notice.

Thinking of the person or people responsible for the incident(s),
how did they relate to the person affected?
A stranger/someone unknown 31 36%
Friends 29 29%
Someone with a sexual involvement 15 18%
I don’t know the real identity of the person or people 18 21%
An acquaintance 15 18%
Someone with a romantic involvement 12 14%
This question does not apply to me 15 18%
Immediate family member 5 6%
Relative 3 4%
Table 10: their relation to the person affected by the experience

While 36% of participants said “someone unknown” was responsible,
29% of participants reported that “friends” were responsible. Three
people have faced or know someone who has faced adverse online
experiences inflicted by a relative, whereas eight participants said that
this question did not apply to them. Sexual partners were responsible,
said 18% and 14% said that romantic partners were responsible for the
violence.

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How did you or the person affected respond to the experience?
(Select all that apply.)
Unfriended or blocked the person 38 45%
Deleted/deactivated the profile on that platform 27 32%
Reported the person responsible to the platform 25 29%
Did not respond 19 22%
Confronted the person either privately or in the 21 25%
comments
Was forced to create a new profile on that platform 8 9%
Made a post publicising the wrongdoer and their actions 11 13%
This question does not apply to me 12 14%
Reported the problem to law enforcement 4 5%
Confronted the individuals concerned personally in the 2 2%
physical world
Table 11: response to the experience

Unfriending and blocking appear to be the most common action taken
by victims of adverse online experiences (45%), followed by deactivating
or deleting the account (32%). Reporting to the relevant platform
administrators is the third most common action against adverse online
experiences, amounting to only 29%. This may be an indicator of the
lack of knowledge on reporting tools of social media platforms. The
data shows that reporting to law enforcement is not a choice of many
victims, with only three participants reporting or knowing someone
who reported such experiences to law enforcement. Interestingly, 22%
have said they did not respond at all.

Did you/they receive a satisfactory resolution?
No 51 60%
Yes 24 28%
I don’t know the result yet 15 18%
Did not respond 7 8%
This question does not apply to me 12 14%
Table 12: resolution to the experience

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59
A majority of participants said they did not receive a satisfactory
resolution, whereas 24 participants said they did. This is an interesting
finding yet not surprising due to the gaps in community standards of
social media platforms.

Safety: Literacy in online safety
In an online landscape riddled with privacy and surveillance issues,
measures individuals can take to protect themselves against such risks
have an important role to play. However, this is only possible where such
users are adequately educated and made aware of the existing threats
and possible techniques against them. Indeed, the Special Rapporteur
on the freedom of expression has underscored “the importance of
educating individuals about internet safety and security, including
fraud, potential consequences of revealing private information on the
internet and the use of encryption or circumvention technologies to
protect information from unwarranted interference.”58

Significant gaps in this awareness were revealed in both the FGD as well
as the survey. As Krishna noted at the FGD, “Whatever we do online
is recorded somewhere. Some people cover their laptop’s camera
(by sticking a plaster) because cameras can be turned on remotely
by someone else. Sometimes Google accounts require telephone
numbers to verify the account, but you can skip this step without
giving the number. But those who don’t know that they can skip the
step give their telephone numbers thinking it is mandatory.”

Another example is observed in how Sumith, a gay man who is also
a sex worker, explained his reasons for using video calls. “Video calls
are important for finding partners,” Sumith said. “It’s very convenient,
because I can talk and present myself to the client on video apps like
Imo before we meet up. The client only has to come to physically meet
me if he is satisfied with my appearance as seen through the video call.”
When asked if video calls are also important because they are safer
than sending an image of himself that can be downloaded and saved
in a potential client’s phone, he insisted that video calls are preferred
only for their convenience, and that in any case photos are also sent as
part of the initial invitation to meet.

Patterns of literacy in online safety were also demonstrated in their
awareness of the survey participants on some common tools used in
online contexts to protect privacy.
58 La Rue, F. (2011). Op. cit., 47.

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Do you use any of the following tools and methods to increase
your security online?
Using strong passwords for your email or other internet 69 81%
accounts
Using only platforms which provide encryption services 15 18%
Using anti-virus software 49 58%
Keeping your operating system updated with the latest 30 35%
security patches and updates
Using IP disguisers/blockers 5 9%
Using anti-censorship software 1 1%
Using a VPN 1 5%
I have heard of some of these tools, but I don’t know 12 14%
how to use them
Table 13: methods used to increase security online

Another such indicator could be the practices surrounding the sharing
of pictures on dating and hook-up platforms.

Thinking about dating and hook-up platforms (Tinder etc.), please
select all the statements relevant to you.
I share my face publicly 39 46%
I only share my face privately 23 27%
I have never been on such platforms. 20 24%
I never share my face 3 4%
Table 14: activity on dating and hook-up platforms

Thinking about dating and hook-up platforms (Tinder etc.),
please select all the statements relevant to you.
I share non-nude pictures publicly, but I also share 28 33%
nude pictures privately.
I share only non-nude pictures, both publicly and 25 29%
privately.
I have never been on such platforms. 22 26%
I share nude pictures both publicly and privately. 6 7%
I don’t share any pictures on such platforms. 4 5%
Table 15: activity on dating and hook-up platforms

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In addition to the photos they share, how and where individuals meet
physically for the first time off a dating app is also crucial to their safety.
The lack of public spaces for LGBTQ Sri Lankans to socialise has already
been highlighted. As the following table indicates, the absence of such
tolerant spaces also has the possibility of endangering the lives and
physical safety of LGBTQ Sri Lankans, with more and more of them
choosing to meet a relative stranger directly in a private space for the
first time.

Fill in the blank with the statement most appropriate to you.
When I meet someone new from such a platform for the first time,
“_________________________”
I always meet them in a public space (a main road, a 22 26%
restaurant, a park).
Sometimes I meet them in a public space, sometimes I 17 20%
meet them directly in my place, their place, or a friend’s
place.
I have never been on such platforms. 22 26%
I always video call them and see their face before I meet 12 14%
them.
I don’t meet people from such platforms in person. 12 14%
I always invite them over directly, or I always go to their 7 8%
place, or we always meet at a friend’s place, directly.
We sometimes meet directly in a hotel/rented room. 5 6%
I always meet them with someone else I know. 2 2%

Table 16: meeting someone from a dating platform

Considering the needs of the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community in literacy
on online safety, targeted interventions within the community on the
subject appear imperative. Indeed, although 22% (19) respondents to
the survey indicated they had participated in some kind of “digital safety
training courses, seminars or workshops,” 78% (66) of respondents
indicated that they had not.

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Access: Obtaining services

A key issue in terms of online rights is the availability, affordability and
quality of access to the internet. This theme has a number of dimensions
to it, namely, technological, economic and linguistic limitations to
access. Indeed, these dimensions also overlap and intersect with each
other.

While several such issues on access were flagged during the FGD, prime
among them was how certain documentary requirements in purchasing
new broadband or mobile connections indirectly discriminated against
LGBTQ Sri Lankans. In 2009, the Telecommunications Regulatory
Commission of Sri Lanka issued regulations requiring registration of all
new connections to be linked to the subscriber’s national identity card
(NIC) number.59 Accordingly, Sayuri, who is a trans woman, recounted
how an agent of an ISP refused to sell her a SIM card, because her NIC
reflected her assigned gender: “The agent looked at the NIC and at
me, and said, ‘This isn’t you.’ I said, ‘No, it is me,’ but he kept insisting
that it wasn’t. I didn’t want to cause a scene, because his shop was on
the sidewalk and there were so many people around, and all of them
would have laughed at me if I had kept insisting that it was me. So I left
the place. Since then, I had to use a friend’s spare SIM, but that SIM
is registered under his name, and if I need to access services, I need
him physically or a letter from him. On top of it all, he’s about to leave
the country soon for employment in the Middle East, and I am not
sure what I will do when he’s gone. Maybe if I go to a principal service
centre instead of a street agent, I won’t have this problem.”

Manju, a trans man, also recounted a similar encounter. He had owned
a SIM card for ten years, one he had purchased and had been using
since before his physical transition. All the documentation on the SIM
reflected his previous identity, and he needed to update it to reflect his
post-transition details, including his new name. He had approached a
customer care point and lied, saying the SIM was officially under his twin
sister’s name and ID card, but that she was currently abroad. He had
requested a “transfer” in ownership, saying that though his “sister”
had purchased the SIM, it had always been him that had used it. The
customer care representative had requested him to come back with
a signed letter from the sister, which he had promised to do, but had
not ultimately got around to doing. However, some time later, he had
noticed that the connection had been updated to reflect his current
59 (2013, 3 July). Dialog Connect: A Case Study. GSMA. www.gsma.com/identity/dialog-connect-a-
case-study.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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details. He believes that although the customer care representative
had requested an official letter, he had made the changes anyway.

In addition to the requirement of an NIC, customers purporting to
purchase post-paid connections are also required to produce a recent
utility bill as proof of billing address. Here, the general requirement is
that the address on the utility bill is reflected in the address on the
NIC. However, if the NIC’s address is out-dated (NICs are first issued
to citizens at the age of 16), a customer may simply ensure that the
address on the application form for the connection is the same as
that on the utility bill.60 If an individual lives in rented housing, they
are required to accompany the proof of billing with a letter from the
landlord, as utility bills for rented houses reflect the landlord’s identity.
Deshan, a gay man, elaborated on how these rules impact on sexuality
minorities. He said, “Many gay people, especially middle-aged and
older gay people, live away from their families, but also live in rented
homes. Most service providers, when you’re trying to get wi-fi or a
fixed line connection, require the homeowner to make the purchase
under their name. Many gay people don’t have their own, permanent
place to live. I have had to buy such services through my mother and
her home address.”

Access: Owning devices

As mentioned in the section above on “Safety of devices”, another
issue in terms of access is how some individuals are required to access
the internet on devices and/or networks that belong to others, such
as their workplaces and or proprietors of internet cafes. While many
individuals use devices and networks not belonging to them in addition
to their own devices and networks, some have online access only
through facilities owned by others. Considering the sensitive nature
of internet consumption related to one’s sexuality, especially where
one’s sexuality is stigmatised in society, the non-ownership of devices
and networks directly hinders the individual’s ability to enjoy their
online human rights, including the ability to meet new people, maintain
relationships, as well as engage various discussions and discourses
related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

60 This information is based on calls to customer care hotlines of prominent ISPs in Sri Lanka.

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Access: Language

Language is another limiting factor affecting the accessibility of online
content. As mentioned before, many sources of information cater to
an English-reading audience. Moreover, most devices are designed, in
terms of their “input” functions, for the English language by default.
Although post-purchase modifications are possible to expand the
devices’ functionality to either Sinhala or Tamil, these modifications
are limited in scope and lack the same functionality of the English
features. Although Sri Lanka features high literacy rates in the general
population, English literacy is not reflected in such indicators. More
importantly, individuals are entitled to the right to access information
and engage in communications in the language of their choice.

Access: Quality of service

Finally, data speeds and quality of service is an important aspect of
online accessibility.61 However, as Manju pointed out during the FGD,
“Sometimes data is so slow and expensive that, when you’re trying to
load a page, you run out of prepaid credit while the pinwheel simply
turns without ever loading. You could reload the account and try again,
and sometimes the credit runs out all over again. This is especially true
if you own a low-feature phone instead of a fully-fledged smart phone.”
Indeed, such constraints are compounded by the significant increase in
taxes on data consumption in Sri Lanka since November 2016,62 which,
according to a senior legal officer of an ISP interviewed confidentially
for this study, amounts to approximately 35% to 49% of the raw user
rate. Indeed, according to said interviewee, some ISPs also employ
various tactics to counter the decrease in data consumption that
corresponds to a significant hike in taxes, by lowering the speed of the
connection at specific data consumption milestones of the consumer.

61 La Rue, F. (2011). Op. cit., 63.
62 (2016, 11 November). Sri Lanka budget 2017: tax and revenue proposals. Lanka Business Online.
www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lanka-budget-2017-tax-and-revenue-proposals
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Section Four
Law and policy

Many human rights are relevant when considering LGBTQ Sri Lankans
in the online space. In the previous section, issues discussed were
framed in terms of use, safety and access; as regards “law and policy”,
we mainly look at the relation between those issues and the human
rights of the freedom of expression, the right to information, the
freedom of association, and the right to privacy.

LGBTQ Sri Lankans enjoy the right to information through their use
of the internet. They access information of vital importance to their
personal growth, health and well-being through the internet; the types
of information accessed span across categories like news, art, health
information, legal information, etc. At the same time, issues of media
literacy, lack of recognition in official/government resources, as well
as limitations to access in terms of linguistic, technological, financial
issues were also touched upon.

LGBTQ Sri Lankans enjoy the freedom of expression through the
internet. They use the internet to raise awareness, to engage with local
discourses on sexuality, to break stereotypes, to advocate their rights,
and even simply to exist. They also use the internet to engage in one-
on-one and group conversations, to share ideas, and even for intimate
expressions.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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LGBTQ Sri Lankans enjoy the freedom of association through the
internet. The internet has been positively instrumental in the formation
of new relationships among members of the LGBTQ community, as
well as sustaining both old and new relationships. These relationships
could be emotional, romantic, casually sexual, platonic, amicable,
acquaintances, etc. The internet has also facilitated the creation of
networks of community members, which is crucial to advocacy efforts.

The internet also impacts the right to privacy of LGBTQ Sri Lankans.
Anonymity and pseudonymous profiles feature in the lives of many
LGBTQ people in the country. At the same time, the safety of their
content and devices from illegal intrusions and state surveillance is a
matter of concern to LGBTQ Sri Lankans.

These rights are generally considered “civil and political.”63 This is not
to say that socioeconomic rights related to the issues discussed in this
study are negligible. In fact, the right to health, the right to education,
the right to science and culture, etc., are also arguably relevant to a
general discussion of LGBTQ Sri Lankans’ internet rights. However,
given the limited recognition of socioeconomic rights in the Sri Lankan
Constitution,64 as well as a general tendency to focus on internet
rights through the lens of civil and political rights even within the
international human rights mechanisms, this study will also follow the
same approach.

In Sri Lanka, it is widely believed that homosexuality is criminalised under
the law. This belief, its accuracy aside, creates a remarkable interface
between the criminal law of the country, the telecommunications
regulatory framework and internet governance, which renders LGBTQ
Sri Lankans vulnerable to both law and society in their use of the
internet.

63 For instance, they all find expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
64 See, generally, Gunatilleke, G.D. (2010). Judicial Activism Revisited: Reflecting on the Role of
Judges in enforcing Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 1 Junior Bar Law Review 21, 28-30.

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The human rights framework in the Constitution

Articles 3 and 4

Article 3 of the Constitution states, “In the Republic of Sri Lanka
sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. Sovereignty
includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the
franchise.” (Emphasis added.) This provision is a foundational
aspect of the Constitution, as it cannot be amended, and
laws inconsistent with it cannot be passed by parliament,
without resorting specially restricted procedures, including the
requirement of a two thirds majority in parliament, as well as a
simple majority in a referendum. In this way, the Constitution
expressly ensures that fundamental rights issues are beyond
the tyranny of the (simple) majority, and that laws affecting
core fundamental rights guarantees are not possible without
broad political consensus.

Article 4 requires “all organs of government” to observe
both negative obligations (i.e. to not to do certain things) and
positive obligations (to take steps, to do things) in relation
to the fundamental rights declared in the Constitution.65 The
significance of this provision is that it envisages all organs of
government to play a proactive role in guaranteeing citizens’
fundamental rights. Indeed, it could be argued that, the
reference to positive obligations recognises that state omissions
violate fundamental rights just as much as state actions do.
However, this aspect of Article 4(d) has received little attention
in domestic jurisprudence.

Articles 10 to 14

Of the specific fundamental rights recognised in the Constitution,
the freedoms of thought and conscience,66 and of expression67
and association,68 are particularly relevant to the present

65 Article 4(d), Constitution of Sri Lanka.
66 Article 10, Constitution of Sri Lanka.
67 Article 14(1)(a), Constitution of Sri Lanka.
68 Article 14(1)(c), Constitution of Sri Lanka.

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discussion. In May 2015, the Constitution was also amended to
declare and recognise the “right of access to information”.69

However, neither the right to privacy,70 nor the broader right to
liberty71 (both of which have been instrumental in vindicating
the sexuality rights in other parts of the world), is explicitly
mentioned in Sri Lanka’s fundamental rights chapter. Nor
does the Constitution include any explicit protections against
arbitrary searches and seizures by law enforcement officials.

However, explicit mention in the Constitution per se is not
always necessary to judicially enforce a right. For instance, in
a landmark judgment,72 the Supreme Court once declared the
right to life as implicit under Article 13(4), which reads, “No
person shall be punished with death or imprisonment except
by order of a competent court, made in accordance with
procedure established by law.” At the same time, Article 12(1),
which guarantees “equality before law” and “equal protection
of law” to all persons, is generally regarded as broad in scope,73
guaranteeing against concepts such as unreasonableness,
arbitrariness, etc., and has been instrumental in recognising
“implied” rights in the Constitution.74

The Constitution does not explicitly mention “sexual
orientation” or “gender identity” as categories protected from

discrimination either, though other categories such as “race,
religion, language, caste” etc. are mentioned. However, in
October 2014, the Government of Sri Lanka took the position
before the Human Rights Committee (HRC) in Geneva (HRC)
that, “Article 12(2) of the Constitution ensures that no citizen
shall be discriminated, inter alia, on ground of sex. In this context,

69 Article 14A, Constitution of Sri Lanka.
70 Toonen v. Australia. Communication No 488/1992. HRC., 31 March 1994); Dudgeon v. the United
Kingdom. App. No. 7525/76. ECtHR.,22 October 1981); National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian
Equality and Another v. Minister of Justice and Others [1998]. ZACC 15. (9 October 1998)
71 Lawrence v. Texas. 539 U.S. 558 (2003) in the United States; Naz Foundation v. Delhi and
Others [2009] 4 L.R.C. 838 in India.
72 Sriyani Silva v. Iddamalgoda (2003) 2 S.L.R. 63.
73 Udayanganie, U.A.T. (2013, October) Expanding the Scope of Judicial Review using
Constitutional Interpretation in Sri Lanka: A Comparative Study of the Development of Judicial
Review in UK. GSTF International Journal of Law and Social Sciences (JLSS) Vol.3 No.1, 51-54
74 See e.g., VisalBhashithaKaviratne et al. v. Commissioner-General of Examinations et al. (The
Z-Score Case) S.C. (F.R.) Application No. 29/2012.

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it [is] noted that laws discriminatory of a person on the grounds
of sexual orientation would not be constitutional.”75 Though
this position comports with the jurisprudence of the HRC,76 its
domestic legal status remains in doubt. Firstly, because only
the Supreme Court is vested with the jurisdiction to interpret
the Constitution;77 and secondly, because the Government of
Sri Lanka has expressly contradicted its position in subsequent
domestic forums.78

Article 15

The Constitution allows reasonable restrictions of certain
fundamental rights through Article 15. The general principle
of this article has been noted by the Supreme Court for its
resonance with Article 29(2) of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights,79 which provides a three-pronged test to assess
the permissibility of a restriction of a right by the State: to be
permissible, any restriction of a human right must
(a) be prescribed by law,
(b) be in the pursuit of a legitimate state interest, and
(c) be necessary in a democratic society.80

In interpreting Article 15, the Court has followed the approach
of the three-pronged test. In Joseph Perera v. A.G.,81 a full bench
of the Supreme Court held that “it is competent to the Court
to question … whether there is a proximate or rational nexus

75 (2014, 7 October). Consideration of the Fifth Periodic Report of Sri Lanka on the
Implementation of the Provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(Transcript of relevant part). www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHcREEWl6G8&feature=youtu.
be&t=6232
76 See Toonen v. Australia. Communication No 488/1992 (HRC, 31 March 1994)
77 Article 125(1), Constitution of Sri Lanka, which reads, “The Supreme Court shall have sole and
exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine any question relating to the interpretation of the
Constitution…”
78 Samarakoon, S. (2017, 26 January). Homosexuality | “Threw out” – Can the President control a
person’s sexual orientation?. Vikalpa. www.vikalpa.org/?p=29311
79 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 29(2): “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms,
everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the
purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of
meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic
society.”
80 Sunila Abeysekera v. Ariya Rubasinghe (2000) 1 SLR 314.
81 Joseph Perera v. A.G. (1987) 1 S.L.R. 199.

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70
between the restriction imposed […] and the object sought to be
achieved by [it].”82

Much later, in SunilaAbeysekera v. AriyaRubasinghe,83
counselling against “looking at one’s own Constitution wearing
blinkers,”84the Court explicitly adopted the three-pronged test
of international human rights law as the suitable yardstick to
assess rights-restrictions under the Constitution.85

The “prescribed by law” prong ensures, as a baseline, that all
restrictions of rights (except those enforced during declared
states of emergency) will always be implemented through
legislation only. However, the requirement also imposes certain
qualitative criteria on the law imposing the restriction. For
example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has held
that under “prescribed by law”, a restriction of a human right
must satisfy two “substantive” qualities: “Firstly, the law must
be adequately accessible: the citizen must be able to have an
indication that is adequate in the circumstances of the legal rules
applicable to a given case. Secondly, a norm cannot be regarded
as a ‘law’ unless it is formulated with sufficient precision to
enable the citizen to regulate his conduct: he must be able – if
need be with appropriate advice – to foresee, to a degree that
is reasonable in the circumstances, the [legal] consequences
which a given action may entail.”86 In the United States, the

Supreme Court follows a similar approach known as the “void-
for-vagueness doctrine” under the Due Process Clause: “[G]
enerally stated, the void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that

82 Ibid., 216-17. Emphasis added. Edited. Although the cited passage refers to Emergency
Regulations, the present submission will justify the extension of its meaning to cover ordinary
legislation as well.
83 Sunila Abeysekera v. Ariya Rubasinghe (2000) 1 SLR 314.
84 Ibid., 351.
85 Ibid., 356-85.
86 Sunday Times v. The United Kingdom (No. 1) App. No. 6538/74 (ECtHR, 26 April 1979), Emphasis
added. However, the ECtHR, went on to state, ibid., that, “Those consequences need not be
foreseeable with absolute certainty: experience shows this to be unattainable. Again, whilst
certainty is highly desirable, it may bring in its train excessive rigidity and the law must be able
to keep pace with changing circumstances. Accordingly, many laws are inevitably couched in
terms which, to a greater or lesser extent, are vague and whose interpretation and application
are questions of practice.” See, also, Ontario Film and Video Appreciation Society v. Ontario
Board of Censors (1983) 31 O.R. (2d) 583 (Ont. H.C.), p. 592: “It is accepted that law cannot be
vague, undefined, and totally discretionary; it must be ascertainable and understandable. Any
limits placed on the freedom of expression cannot be left to the whim of an official; such limits
must be articulated with some precision or they cannot be considered to be law.”
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a penal statute define the criminal offence with sufficient
definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct
is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary
and discriminatory enforcement.”87

The other two limbs of the three-pronged test ensure the
principle of proportionality, which requires the state to balance
any legitimate aims it pursues through rights-restrictions with
the burdens they impose on individuals. Under this approach,
known as the proportionality test, the state is to consider such
aspects of a given restriction as: the availability of relevant and
sufficient reasons justifying the measure; the availability of less
intrusive measures; the incorporation of adequate safeguards
against abuse, etc. If a restriction fails to satisfy any limb of the
three-pronged test, it is held to be impermissible under human
rights law.

Thus, the significance of this provision is that, even where
fundamental rights protect the words, conduct, etc. of a person,
the government may still restrict them, through criminal law,
civil law, or even administrative action. However, in order to
be considered legal, such restrictions need to satisfy the three
criteria outlined above.

Article 16
A major limitation in the Constitution’s human rights framework
is that it precludes “judicial invalidation” of rights-violating
legislation through Articles 16(1) and 80(3). In other words,
courts are precluded from “striking down” laws found to be
inconsistent with fundamental rights.

However, the Supreme Court has made significant inroads to this
limitation, for example when it declared a statutory provision
unconstitutional and, without invalidating it, refused to give
effect to it.88 Incidentally, the impugned statutory provision in
that case is part of the same 1995 legislation that amended the
provisions of the Penal Code relevant to LGBTQ Sri Lankans:
Sections 365 and 365A.

87 Kolender v. Lawson. 461 U.S. 352, 357 (1983).
88 Supreme Court Reference No. 03 of 2008, decided on 15 October 2008. See below, cases
discussed in text accompanying note 93.

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Substantive law framework

Sections 365/365A of the Penal Code are at the top of a pyramid of
laws directly infringing LGBTQ Sri Lankans’ human rights. Criminalising
“carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “acts of gross
indecency”, respectively, these provisions are abjectly vague, and
appear to capture many sexual acts committed between persons,
irrespective of their age, their genders, or the existence of consent
between them. Section 365A is particularly broad, covering not only
the commission of an act, but also the procurement and the attempt to
procure the commission of such acts. By criminally sanctioning certain
sexual acts, the provisions directly interfere with how individuals
express their identity, how they express themselves sexually, and who
they form intimate relationships with.
They also exert an undue influence on other laws. This was seen in
1999, when the Sri Lanka Press Council arbitrarily conflated “gross
indecency” under Section 365A with “sadism” under Rule 9 of the
Code of Ethics for Journalists.89 It was also seen in how, under the
Penal Code, perpetrators of the non-consensual, predatory sexual
offences are treated differently based on the sex of the victim, with
the mandatory minimum sentence being relaxed where the victim is
female, and enforced strictly where the victim is male.90 Here, again,
the court deploys vague references to Sections 365 and 365A as
justifying their differential treatment, and here again, the decision-
making body’s interpretations of the provisions were arbitrary and had
no authority in law.91 For one, sentencing disparities in child abuse law
enforcement to this extent discriminates against both girls and boys.
In addition to Sections 365 and 365A, obscenity, profanity and public
performance laws are the other laws that impact sexuality and sexual
expressions in Sri Lanka. A key characteristic of these laws is that

they either do not define the scope of the offence, or when they do,
they often couch the offence in broad, vacant language. The Obscene
Publications Ordinance No. 4 of 1927 makes it an offence to produce,
possess, import, export, carry on, take part in a business or advertise

89 See above, texts accompanying notes 27 to 30.
90 Supreme Court Appeal No. 17 of 2013, decided on 12 March 2013 and Court of Appeal No. 150 of
2010, decided on 16 July 2014.
91 “Section 365 and 365A [were made] wide enough with amendments to include ‘unnatural
offences and grave sexual abuse … This court cannot show any leniency on any account, in
view of the serious nature of the offence…, mainly to protect the society from such mentally
disordered offences.” (S.C. Appeal 17/2013, note 93, above.)
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the availability of obscene publications. However, the act does not
define the term “obscenity”. The Profane Publications Act No 41 of
1958 makes it an offence for any writer, publisher, printer or distributor
to write, produce, print, publish, sell, distribute or exhibit any profane
publication. A profane publication is defined to mean any newspaper,
book, picture, film or other visible representation containing an insult to
the founder of any religion, any deity, saint or person venerated by the
followers of any religion, or any religious belief or any representation
that ridicules any figure, picture, emblem, device or other thing
associated with or sacred to the following of any religion.92 But, again,
profanity itself is left undefined.

Though none of the laws have been enforced in connection with the
internet (or even in general, in some cases), “their mere existence
warrants concern.”93 Laws restricting human rights must be, among
other things, accessible and foreseeable, so that those affected by the
law may know the extent of their legal obligations. However, in terms
of the network of vague legal provisions discussed above, most LGBTQ
Sri Lankans remain unaware of the exact scope of the prohibition of
“homosexuality”. Moreover, the laws are also vague in their potential
applications on the internet: almost all the provisions mentioned
include words such as “engage”, “procure”, “publish,” and it is unclear
how this language could be applied to expressions and encounters
taking place in the online space.

Vagueness also confers broad discretionary powers to law enforcement
officials, enabling them to abuse laws and enforce them selectively. As
mentioned before, a requirement under the three-pronged test is that
there are adequate safeguards against abuse of a particular restriction.
Together, non-vagueness and procedural safeguards ensure that
citizens know their legal obligations and that those obligations will be
fairly and equally enforced to all citizens. However, the fact that the
impugned laws operate under a procedural framework with barely
any safeguards against abuse compounds the adverse effects of their
vagueness. Not only do LGBTQ Sri Lankans not know the extent of
their obligations, they are also constantly under the threat of legal
surveillance with little possibility of prior notice or judicial oversight.

92 See, in general, (2011, November). Freedom of Expression on the Internet in Sri Lanka. Colombo:
Centre for Policy Alternatives, 25-26. www.cpalanka.org/freedom-of-expression-on-the-
internet-in-sri-lanka/
93 Ibid.

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Procedural law framework

A significant aspect of online rights, particularly in terms of the right
to privacy in the digital age, is the powers of the state to carry out
investigations and surveillance on individuals’ activities on the internet.
In Sri Lanka, no consolidated law exists governing this aspect of the
state’s powers. In interviews with key informants, such as an officer of
the Cyber Crimes Division of the Criminal Investigations Department,
as well as a senior official of the National Child Protection Authority,
the Computer Crimes Act No 24 of 2007 and the Code of Criminal
Procedure were mentioned as the main laws governing the police’s
procedural powers in online criminal investigations. Both interviewees
also averred that the Computer Crimes Act provided the necessary
powers to investigate crimes committed on the internet and that it
was fully compliant with the Convention on Cybercrime (to which Sri
Lanka is a State party).

The Code of Criminal Procedure (CPC) provides the general procedure
applicable in criminal matters, and was first enacted in Sri Lanka in
1889. While the code provides for various investigatory powers, the
provisions pertaining to searches of “documents and other things” are
the most relevant to the present discussion: firstly, under Section 66(1),
a relevant court may require any person to produce “any document
or other thing [that] is necessary or desirable for the purpose of any
proceeding under [the CPC].” Secondly, under Section 67(1), any court
can require the Department of Posts and Telecommunications to
deliver “any book, letter, post card, telegram or other document” in
their custody if the court wants it “for the purpose of any investigation
or proceeding under [the CPC].”

This latter power is not limited to the exclusive jurisdiction of courts:
under Section 67(2), the attorney general (AG) or any police officer of/
above the rank of superintendent may also require telecommunications
authorities to deliver “documents” in that manner. Sections 66 and 67
represent the means by which a court or other investigating official
may require entities to make documentary disclosures for the purpose
of an investigation. It is only if these measures are not complied with
that a search warrant issued by a court is necessary to compel the
search or seizure of the documentary evidence sought.

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The Computer Crimes Act No 24 of 2007 (CCA) provides a specific
scheme of offences, such as crimes related to hacking, infecting
computers with viruses, unauthorized interception of data, etc.
Section 2 of the act specifically states that it applies only in relation
to the offences specified in the act, and subsequent provisions specify
a number of investigatory powers. Key examples of such powers are
the ability to “obtain any information including subscriber information
and traffic data in the possession of any service provider”94 and “to
intercept any wire or electronic communication including subscriber
information and traffic data, at any stage of such communication.”95
Though the general rule is that an investigator may only access such
information under a warrant issued by a magistrate, this requirement
may be unilaterally bypassed if an investigator believes, for instance,
that “the investigation needs to be conducted urgently”96 or that
“there is a need to maintain confidentiality”97 (hereinafter referred
to as “extenuating circumstances”). Section 21(1) provides that,
“Any police officer may, in the course of an investigation under this
act, exercise powers of arrest, search, or seizure of any information
accessible within any premises.” The only qualifying requirement is
that such an officer is certified by the inspector-general of police as
“[possessing] adequate knowledge and skill in the field of information
communication technology and is thereby possessed of the required
expertise to perform such a function.”98 Section 24(1) requires all
officers engaged in investigations under the act to “maintain strict
confidentiality with regard to all information” that comes to their
knowledge during the investigation.

In order to respect the right to privacy, all surveillance powers of the
state must satisfy minimum criteria, whether under the CPC or CCA.
One such criterion is the requirement of the state to be proportionate
in restricting individual human rights. However, both the CPC and CCA
only require the information sought to be necessary for the purposes
of the investigation. Considerations such as whether the person being
searched is suspected of an offence, the availability of alternative
methods of investigation, the scope of the surveillance measure
and whether it accesses more information than is necessary for the
investigation, are not expressly required under the statutes.

94 Section 18(1)(i), CCA.
95 Section 18(1)(ii), CCA.
96 Section 18(2)(a), CCA.
97 Section 18(2)(c), CCA.
98 Section 21(2), CCA.

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Another criterion is the availability of judicial oversight over any
determinations related to surveillance measures. As seen above,
under the CPC, judicial oversight in issuing an order to disclose is
only mandatory when the order is directed to a “person”. The AG or
an adequately senior police officer may issue an order directly to the
Departments of Posts and Telecommunications to deliver documents
in their custody without judicial oversight. In either case, a “warrant”
to compel search or seizure is only necessary if the person or the
department refuses to comply with the initial order made by a court, a
police officer or the AG (as the case may be). Even where a court issues
an order, the CPC only mandates courts to evaluate the necessity of the
measure for the purpose of an investigation. Broader considerations,
including the human rights of those affected by the measure, are
not expressly required under the law. By contrast, under the CCA, an
investigator may bypass judicial oversight altogether, even as regards
“persons”, by adducing reasons for extenuating circumstances.
Moreover, though the CCA does not mention the Department of
Posts and Telecommunications, it does explicitly recognise “service
providers.” This allows police officers a wider power than under the
CPC to directly order disclosures by Internet service providers (ISPs),
without judicial oversight or departmental intervention, provided
there are extenuating circumstances to do so. The only avenue of
judicial redress in such instances seems to be to challenge the police
officers’ assessment of the existence of extenuating circumstances.

The recognition of “service providers” under the CCA is a crucial
development, as it specifically addresses the issue of internet
intermediaries. Under the CPC, ISPs may be considered as falling
under the general term “persons,” allowing only a court to require
production of “documents” by them; the AG or a senior police officer
may not directly order disclosures of ISPs under this interpretation.
On the other hand, an ISP’s subscriber data could be considered to
be “documents” in the “custody” of the “Department of Posts and
Telecommunications,” in which case, the AG or a senior police officer
may require the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC)
to compel productions by an ISP without judicial oversight in the first
instance.

However, under either approach, an ISP may refuse to comply with
such a request, insisting on a warrant to submit to a search or seizure
by the police. ISPs may also choose to cooperate with law enforcement
officials, volunteering the requested information without insisting

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on any further judicial review. ISPs are not precluded from notifying
customers affected by an order made under the CPC, but such
notification is not mandatory either. Under the CCA, in cases where
the police have unilaterally overridden judicial oversight by adducing
extenuating circumstances, ISPs come directly under the power of
the police, and are not only bound to comply with police orders to
disclose, but are also bound to maintain the confidentiality of ongoing
investigations. They may not notify their customers of any measures
being taken against them. Section 24(3) of the CCA exempts service
providers from liability for any disclosures they make under the law for
the purpose of an investigation.

By comparison, the CCA provides far more extensive investigatory
powers to police officers in investigations than does the CPC, and,
perhaps for this reason, explicitly provides that the specific powers
apply only to offences defined under that act. In the interviews with
the CID and NCPA officials, however, it appeared that the powers
recognised under the CCA were considered as indivisible from the
powers under the CPC, rather than as the CCA establishing a special
investigatory framework for a special area of criminal law. Neither of
the officials could recall the contents of Sections 66 or 67 of the CPC,
or Section 18 of the CCA during their interviews.

Telecommunications regulatory framework

Despite the subtle distinctions in how the different statutes govern the
Department of Posts and Telecommunications, both interviewees as
well as a senior legal officer interviewed from an ISP could not clearly
identify the scope of the TRC’s regulatory power over ISPs in practice.
The Department of Posts and Telecommunications mentioned
under the CPC was first established in 1896, and continued in that
form until, in 1980, its focal areas of posts and telecommunications
were separated. In 1991, the Department of Telecommunications
was further “transformed into a government owned corporation
called Sri Lanka Telecom”99, while an “office of the Director General
of Telecommunications was established at the same time to serve
as the regulatory body.”100In 1996, the director general’s office was
restructured as the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC)
of Sri Lanka.

99 Gunawardane, N., & Wattegama, C. (2001). Op. Cit, 6.
100 Ibid.

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Both interviewees as well as the senior legal officer of an ISP noted
that subscriber data may be acquired either through an order
addressed directly to the ISP or through a request communicated
to the ISP through the TRC. The approach followed depends on the
circumstances of the case, though no clear framework exists to guide
that choice of approach.

None of the interviewees were able to specify the legal provisions
under which these powers were being exercised. The Sri Lanka
Telecommunications Act, no 25 of 1991, which establishes the TRC,
specifies the powers and duties of the TRC in section 5. Section 5(f)
allows the commission to “take such measures … to comply with any
general or special directions that may be given to it from time to time by
the government of Sri Lanka in the interest of national security, public
order and the defence of the country.” Also, Section 5(x) authorises
the commission “to do all ... acts which may be incidental or conducive
to, the attainment of the objects of the ommission or the exercise or
discharge of its powers and duties under this act.” The commission
may, under Section 7(b), also require any “person” to “furnish to the
commission … any document … which is in [that person’s] custody
or control [which is needed by the commission] for the purpose of
exercising, performing and discharging its powers, functions or duties
under the act.” None of these provisions (or any other provisions of
the act) specifically state that the disclosure of an ISP’s subscriber data
can be compelled through the TRC. However, the existence of such a
practice was clearly stated during interviews.

A key function of the TRC is to issue licenses to ISPs to operate in Sri
Lanka. As such, most ISPs are dependent on their relationship with
the TRC for the stability of their legal environment, and the senior
legal officer interviewed from an ISP acknowledged the TRC’s “broad
discretionary powers” in the area. Challenging orders to disclose
subscriber data requires case-by-case litigation, which ISPs consider
odious, especially in the highly competitive market environment of
telecoms services in Sri Lanka. This fact, coupled with the absolute lack
of a legal requirement to notify customers of surveillance measures
they are being subjected to, ensures that ISPs simply comply with
requests.

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The need for positive reforms for protection

As seen above, in Sri Lanka, the online space is significantly vulnerable
to arbitrary policing, based on the many levels of weaknesses that
exist in the procedural and regulatory framework for surveillance
in the country. These weaknesses impact the online rights of all Sri
Lankans. However, Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code (and
the arbitrary interpretations of those laws) interact with various
other laws and institutions to make LGBTQ Sri Lankans vulnerable in
many aspects of their socio-political life in Sri Lanka, and the internet
proves to be another such aspect. The existence of many vague laws
affecting sexuality and sexual expression compounds this vulnerability,
especially in terms of obscenity and profanity laws. That these laws
have not been positively enforced remains immaterial, as they instil
fear and uncertainty in the minds of LGBTQ Sri Lankans who wish to
exercise their rights (such as the freedom of expression), and leads to
self-censorship and non-participation by them in many online contexts.

However, the critique of the legal framework in Sri Lanka does not end
with a discussion of already existing laws that violate human rights.
It must include a note on the laws that do not exist to protect human
rights, as well. Though the internet provides an excellent platform for
self-expression, access to information, and relationship-building, those
uses are dependent on the freedom of users to participate in and engage
with the platform. This unquestionably requires the elimination of laws
that unduly restrict human rights, such as those laws mentioned in the
preceding sections. But it also requires the promulgation of new laws
and policies to facilitate participation and engagement by marginalised
groups such as LGBTQ Sri Lankans.

For instance, a significant barrier to open participation in online
discussions is the fear of abuse and hate speech that might be levelled
against an LGBTQ person. In such cases, laws that positively identify
hate speech based on sexual or gender identity as an offence, and
which are used to prosecute the most egregious instances of such hate
speech, will signal a policy of no-tolerance by the government that will
serve to encourage more participation and engagement by LGBTQ Sri
Lankans in online spaces, as well as the reportability of such incidents.
On the other hand, the lack of comprehensive laws on hate speech on
diverse communities, as well as the continued existence of laws that
purport to “criminalise” homosexuality not only instil fear in LGBTQ

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Sri Lankans of abuse and hate speech, they also work to legitimise the
words and actions of the abusers.

Another barrier to participation in the online space is the lack of
safeguards for content shared or stored by LGBTQ Sri Lankans. For
example, according to the senior official of the National Child Protection
Authority (NCPA), a significant lacuna is the absence of laws adequately
addressing the unauthorised distribution of private content. For the
NCPA, the phenomenon is seen in the context of how adolescent girls
share pictures of themselves in varying degrees of nudity with their
“boyfriends,” only to have that trust violated by said boyfriends, who
share those pictures with their friends or even submit them to various
porn sites.101 The NCPA official interviewed for this study bemoaned the
fact that the only avenue of redress is under the Obscene Publications
Act (discussed above), which focuses exclusively on the “obscenity”
aspect of such incidents and not on the aspects of abuse, exploitation
and breach of trust that victims experience. While the NCPA has taken
an initiative to reform the law to target non-consensual distributions
and breaches of confidence in relation to intimate images,102 the
authority is significantly restricted by its statutory mandate of child
protection.

It is imperative, especially given the findings of this study, that the
relevant reforms are not limited to the context of children, but
apply broadly and equally to all people who perpetrate unauthorised
disclosures or distributions of intimate content created by a third party.

101 For an overview of the phenomenon, see, Billimoria, H. (2017, 27 January). Investigating Sri
Lanka’s nude culture. openDemocracy 50/50 available at: www.opendemocracy.net/5050/hans-
billimoria/investigating-sri-lanka-s-nude-culture
102 NCPA. (2015, 18 June). Task Force to combat the growing threat to children. NCPA. www.news.
lk/news/political-current-affairs/item/8260-task-force-appointed-to-combat-threat-to-children-
via-social-media-sites

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Chapter 2

Not Traditionally Technical :
Lesbian women in Sri Lanka and
their use of the online space

Shermal Wijewardene and Subha Wijesiriwardena

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Introduction

T he objective of this section of the study is to offer a ‘thick’ account
of how lesbian women engage with the online space. The rationale
for devoting a separate section to this arose from the data. As one-
on-one interviews and a focus group discussion showed, lesbian
women’s online engagements demanded to be treated as specifically
gendered and sexualised experiences, while being classed, race-d and
so on. Their approach to the online space was traced through with the
awareness that they had to negotiate being hailed by a patriarchal and
heterosexist social system. This understanding, we felt, called for a
dedicated analysis.

Lesbian women’s responses are discussed under three framings,
use, safety and access, as in the broader framework of the study. In
addition, the analysis also highlights something which the data yielded,
which is the emphasis that many women placed on surveillance. If
not a separate frame, this was a prominent cross-cutting theme that
many participants spoke to when they discussed use and safety, and it
nuanced those two framings.

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Surveillance is a historic tool of control and is experienced uniquely by
women. Dr Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project (INDIA),
writes,

‘Indeed, surveillance of women is a long-standing
practice in our society as elsewhere - and one that
women from all castes, classes and religions are too
familiar with, even if it affects them differently...And
for centuries, women’s experiences have provided a
wealth of information on what happens to those who
are surveilled yet deviate from the norm - online abuse
targeted at women exemplifies this today again so
very well.’103

Because ‘surveillance’ is of particular importance to women - and even
more perhaps to lesbian women - and because the conversations
with our respondents confirmed this, we were keen to examine
‘surveillance’ as a cross-cutting point of concern.

On the use of the term ‘lesbian women’

We use the term ‘lesbian women’ throughout this paper because
we want to signal both gender and sexuality as important to their
narratives; we are not being prescriptive as far as a norm of ‘lesbian’
or ‘woman’ identities are concerned. Broadly, we use this term - while
acknowledging its inadequacy and understanding that is merely
approximate - to refer to a participant group of women who desire
and love women.

Methodology
1. A Focus Group Discussion which brought together 6 lesbian
women
2. 16 responses to the online survey, from lesbian women (in
English and Sinhala)
3. One-on-one interviews held with 3 lesbian women
4. Additional research on gendered and sexualized perspectives
of surveillance and online violence against LBT persons in Sri
Lanka (citations provided)

103 https://genderingsurveillance.internetdemocracy.in/

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Use

Lesbian women’s responses from the Focus Group Discussion and
the one-on-one interviews indicated that they have three main and
overlapping uses for the online space: as an “information tool”, a
“social networking tool”, and an “advocacy tool” for social justice
issues, including feminist and LGBTQ issues (Gayani). The majority of
these engagements were on social media platforms like Facebook,
while a very few spoke in relation to their use of Twitter, Instagram,
and Snapchat. Other uses that were not cited as much but were still
important, were work related, involving sharing and promoting one’s
work and following international professional communities.

A number of respondents said that they use the online space, most
prominently Facebook, to search for and stay updated on current
affairs, including LGBTQ-related news. Online spaces are used in a
variety of ways to obtain LGBTQ news. For instance, some subscribe
to prominent overseas LGBTQ news magazines and keep track of the
work of local LGBTQ organisations via their online posts. Others, like
Gayani, are very deliberate in using online resources for news and
information. She said,

I think it [Facebook] is my primary source of
information. The newsfeed is very important to me.
[...] I very strategically subscribe to organizations,
news sites and groups so as and when things happen
it’s always there. I check Facebook on a regular basis,
the news feed, not just to be like ‘Ok who is having
a party?’But as an information tool, where we are
constantly consuming information like BBC and
National Geographic or whatever is going on, the New
Yorker, the Economist, everything is happening for me
at the same time. So it’s fantastic as a tool because I
don’t have to individually go for those sites to get those
information- it is there. If there is something I actively
want to pursue I have my information organized in
such a way on Facebook that I can always follow
those threads and then kind of inquire further. So
information can be from what is happening in politics,
to world affairs, to philosophy to arts and culture,
theatre, everything. So it is really my primary source
of information. More so than a social networking tool.

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Gayani’s responses also indicated that the online space is facilitating
to the extent that it could create a loop where these three uses,
information seeking, networking and advocacy, come together. She
said,, “if you are friends with activists, then you know what is going
on...like marriage equality and decriminalization... through Facebook
primarily… and you support their campaigns and write about it on
Facebook.” Online news was not just viewed as content that was
posted by designated and authoritative news sites. Being able to learn
from the exchange of information and ideas amongst ordinary people
whom one would not usually find focusing on LGBTQ topics, was also
treated as part of obtaining news online. Speaking of a Sri Lankan
Facebook groups, Mali said,

The value of it is that LGBT and straight people meet
online and have a discussion on that group. So I think
that this doesn’t usually happen in the world face to
face. But because we share issues on Facebook, people
start talking about what they are actually thinking
about, instead of just going to a demonstration
and standing there. So we can see this discussion
formulating and an exchange of information.

“Family surveillance” and “Public Surveillance”

If this describes a scenario of lesbian women becoming agentive
through the online space by accessing, consuming and producing
news and doing advocacy on LGBTQ and other issues, Gayani and
others were also quick to qualify and problematise that narrative. They
noted that the space for “self-expression” (Gayani), to initiate, and to
engage dynamically, was often contingent on and constrained by their
consciousness of surveillance. Many stated that they were troubled
by the sense of having to negotiate “family surveillance” and “public
surveillance” (Shami). In this dual understanding of surveillance, “family
surveillance” was broadly understood as the feeling of being subject to
scrutiny online by family members. Essentially, this meant “in terms of
what you share, what your thoughts are” there is “the worry: Who in
the world is going to see? This aunty? “ (Gayani). . “Public surveillance”
was understood as “the government or other persons are surveilling
us through different mediums [and] without us knowing, reading what
we are writing” (Rekha).

Both types of surveillance affected how lesbian women used online
space as an information tool (and in some instances, to do advocacy),
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but not everyone was equally affected. For instance, some feared
online public surveillance more and dismissed being impacted by
family surveillance, while others felt affected by both types. Those who
were “out” to their family, or refused to be subject to family control,
rejected family surveillance but were nevertheless concerned by public
surveillance.

These views highlight the fact that the policing and control of lesbian
women’s online engagements by their families is an issue of some
significance. As established by a previous study which focused on
the offline space, retaining autonomy within the family unit can be a
problem for some lesbian women, not least because women’s personal
independence is often not recognised, and also because family honour
and reputation are perceived to rest on women’s proper conduct in
matters of gender and sexuality.104 Echoes of this appear in lesbian
women’s narratives about online space. Two narratives highlighted
the family’s attempts to surveil and manipulate lesbian women’s online
engagements so that they do not compromise either the woman’s or
the family’s reputation or image. Kala said,

I mean you don’t have to wear a t-shirt and say I am
gay and proud and walk around with that but in terms
of what you share, what your thoughts are, the need
to restrain yourself is so much-- for me I found it to
be very oppressive in the past...There was a time
in the past, I did this whole drag king kind of thing,
like absolutely fantastic, and I had that as my profile
picture and obviously this aunty calls my mother
saying ‘Something has happened to your daughter,
she has become a weirdo’. And then my mother calls,
saying ‘You need to change your profile picture’.

Kala resented her family’s presumed prerogative to have a say in
what she did with her gendered and sexualised self-expression online,
stating, “it becomes everyone’s business”. Furthermore, she also saw
this as as her family’s attempt to make her adhere to gender and sexual
norms in the online space and to deny her her right to define who she
was and express herself as she wished. Another participant cited a
similar scenario of her family intervening in ways that made her modify
her online interactions.

104 Not Gonna Take It Lying Down, Women’s Support Group (2014)
https://www.scribd.com/document/214827257/Not-Gonna-Take-It-Lying-Down-English

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Before I came out to my family, there was a point when
I had told them and they weren’t happy about it. My
mother actually Googled the word ‘gay’ and my name
and there were so many posts that came up and she
was horrified. Like even things that I had done even
voluntarily for an organisation and all these articles or
whatever that I had written on it. So then I actually had
to write to Google and get them to get it off the cache
and all sorts of madness. So that was whole drama
until I got it off.

Again, this participant was forced to literally digitally erase a history
of her subjective involvement with LGBTQ issues--her activist and
academic work--due to her family’s ‘horror’ that such things were
visible online.

Family surveillance, as these women understand it, are means of
disciplining them and curtailing their online visibility and expression.
Their families’ desire that no one should be able to see their ‘queer’
markers is clearly not just a technical issue of making them scrub and
sanitise their online engagements. Family surveillance did not always
operate through incidents. It was manifest through a more generalised
consciousness of surveillance, in the sense of an awareness of what
their families would disapprove of their doing online, such as being
‘publicly’ and visibly queer, being involved in LGBTQ advocacy and
academic work, and so on. .

It is important to record that this was not every woman’s experience.
Some, like Rekha, pushed back against the idea that family could be
inhibiting in the online space, saying “I am an adult now so I don’t
have my parents looking into my business”. Others, like Pushpa, did
not feel inhibited because they put their faith in knowing and trusting
their families: “In my family there are a few people who know about
me. They don’t know that I am lesbian but they accept the way I am.
Because of that they have no issues. They are all on my facebook.
Because they love me I don’t think that they are surveilling me. I know
that within my family how they think about me so because of that.”
Still others, like Thusitha, asserted their agency fiercely and refused to
recognise the possibility of feeling inhibited by family: “I have added
my family members onto my Facebook. If they have a problem with it
then it’s their problem and not mine. If they want to remove me they
can...I think because there was no issue for me from home... I think let
anyone think what they want it doesn’t matter to me. I was like that

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then and I am still like that now. I don’t restrict myself when I need to
express myself, just because my friends or family are on Facebook.”

It is important to record that, for some participants, family surveillance
was felt affectively, as “oppressive”, as a matter of forcing one to
“restrain” oneself, because the issues at stake, as Kala noted, is
nothing less than the question of “how open you are about who you
are...your authenticity”. Family surveillance was seen to disrupt this
capacity. As Kala noted about the affective toll it took on her after she
had to change her online engagement at her family’s request,

After that I was very careful as to what I put out
there. It was fun for me, for me it was a form of self-
expression, like it’s tough, it’s a constant balance, it is
at a psychological level, you’re always making those
choices. And I think as a gay person it is unfortunate,
in a sense, that you have to do that because a lot of
other people will not think of it at that micro level, as
to what the hell they are doing every time they post
something on Facebook.

Similarly, Kishani, was also concerned about her family finding out
via Facebook about her relationship with another woman. “I worry
about it because that’s not the way I want them to find out,” she said.
“Especialy Facebook, it doesn’t feel like it would have my back at any
point. The most I protect myself is on Facebook.”

Family surveillance: “Fun”/ “Authentic”

These views also provide an important insight into a certain
understanding of online family surveillance that requires interrogation.
In attempting to represent that surveillance, participants such as the
one quoted above, tended to construct the online space as an arena of
being playful, ironic, and provisional about one’s expression of gender
and sexuality, and the family as the disciplinarians who constrained
that possibility because they take everything that is said online at face
value and in earnest and miss the point that ‘play’ and ‘fun’ are defining
features of online interactions.

There is a complex set of assumptions behind this understanding. One
strand concerns the presumption that family surveillance is associated
with the family’s lack of social media literacy. This is the rather
condescending idea that older members especially, perhaps because
they are from an ‘analog’ generation, misread the operation of digital

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signifiers of gender and sexuality in the online space and are unable to
grasp that the drag king outfit “was fun for me, it was a form of self-
expression” rather than a strict expression of gender or sexual identity.
In other words, they do not ‘get’ the notion that the online space is
the space of performativity--what you see is not what you get, but
only a curated version, one product of an attempt to express oneself.
Intersecting with this is also another condescending idea about older
family members (the snoopy ‘aunty’), which is that they are not au fait
with queer politics and performativity.

These assumption highlight the intersections of gender, sexuality,
generational politics, assumptions about social media performativity,
and so on, in the construction of family surveillance. It also highlights
what appears to be an important point of incoherence, which is in
the juxtaposition of the performative and the ‘authentic’ in Kala’s
understanding.. Kala’s emphasis on the idea that she was having
‘fun’ with her drag king costuming, which was misread as her ‘real’
identity by an ‘aunty’ and her mother, brings in her desire to assert the
element of gender performativity in the face of what she sees as an
older generation’s inept reading of how people ‘do’ gender on social
media. However, this is curiously out of step with a more essentialist
assertion, which is that family surveillance intervenes in “who you
are...your authenticity”.

Family surveillance: Changes and shifts

A further crucial insight about perceptions of family surveillance, is
that it changes and shifts over time. Those who were not now overly
concerned with family surveillance observed that this had not always
been so, and that it had changed over time due to various factors such
as being “out” to their families and their families gradually coming to
some acceptance; being older and, and so on. Lara, who is now ‘out’
and not overly concerned about family surveillance, recalled how, “a
few years ago, I wasn’t too cool at that point in my life. I wasn’t out. I
mean I was out but to closer friends. And I remember a friend made a
comment on Facebook [that said I was a lesbian], and I lost it! This is on
a platform where everyone else can see it and home can see it.”

Shami’s mother’s pressure had forced her to go the lengths of asking
Google to delete any LGBTQ-related post associated with her (perhaps
similar to activating the right to be forgotten), but her circumstances
had changed since then. She noted that, now, “rather than family
surveillance my fear is of public surveillance. About sharing something
that is queer. Or making a post ect. So the public surveillance is more
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fearful because it is also related to my work and I don’t want to be
outed at the moment. I am out to my family so it is not an issue at all.”

Perceptions and subjectively felt experiences of family surveillance
also change over time based on how lesbian women manipulate their
online interactions with family members. Mali, Lara and Kishani were
representative of a number of lesbian women who chose to manipulate
standard Facebook repertoires to send the message that the family
did not have the prerogative to observe them, and that, in fact, they
could turn the tables and make the family the object of surveillance.
This included selectively adding or not adding family members; adding
family but keeping them on limited profile; only adding the “second
generation: cousins, my uncle’s son, my uncle’s daughter” (Mali);
ignoring family members who posted homophobic posts, and so
on. When Mali found “what is known as casual homophobia, I see it
in their feeds”, she was incensed. Initially she decided that, for her,
“family surveillance...is about keeping family at bay”. However, she
accidentally stumbled upon the fact that ‘liking’ her family’s posts
quite intensively could shift the surveillance from her on to them, and
make them feel observed, in an aggressively ‘nice’ way. Because of this
reversal, the family member in question “stopped kind of posting those
comments”, so, “people can also change over time on Facebook”.

What should also not be underestimated in this discussion is the
importance of affective changes which are connected to lesbian women
coming into their own. Gayani recalled that, “when some injustice
happens maybe in relation to a friend or something, I used to speak out
because there is an audience usually on Facebook.” She qualified that
by recalling her initial apprehensions that, “the issue with Facebook is
that you have your aunties and uncles and neighbours and everybody
and then you are like hmmm.” But looking back now, she felt that she
had grown out of feeling the pressure of family surveillance as she had
before, by a sense of being an older woman and not as easily inhibited
or intimidated. Describing that process of coming into her own, she
said,

There was a point in time in my life where when I was
younger that I was very scared to speak out on LGBTIQ
stuff because I knew my aunties and uncles were on
Facebook. I did not want to put like let’s say a gay pride
flag or my profile picture or something because I did
not want to be outed. So that was an issue. But now I
am like what the fuck, kind of thing. So it’s interesting

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how that evolves over time, the experience. Now that
I have passed 30, I am less scared to talk on Facebook.
I don’t bother anymore with restricted lists [when I
post comments].

Public Surveillance

Narratives about public surveillance were also closely associated with
what many lesbian women said about their use of the online space
for information seeking, networking and advocacy. Concerns about
how their professional lives may be affected was voiced by many.
Again, Facebook was cited by the majority of participants, as the site
which they had to use very carefully because of potential surveillance
by colleagues and others connected to their workplace. A common
anxiety was about never being sure (or able to ensure) that they could
filter their audiences appropriately in each instance that they post
something that could be the object of surveillance by their workplace
and result in dire consequences. Rapti said,

How do you then filter your audiences depending on
the kind of work you do as well? I think in my profession,
in terms of the content that I post and people getting
to know... and the legal and social background in this
country... I am a very passionate person, I feel strongly
about things. Not that I vocalize them, but in terms
of what I share I don’t necessarily think much about
it. But that does come into mind quite a bit, in terms
of how that then translates into reality, for my lived
experiences.

Similarly, Mali said,

I have added those who work with me, on Facebook.
I am not constantly thinking about if they are there or
not but it’s something that I do know is at the back
of my mind. Because you think about how much the
people in your workplace need to know about you.
This is something you need to think about all the time.

These responses highlighted an interesting insight, chiefly that lesbian
women did see that the issue of public surveillance was not just a
matter of malicious actors or authoritarian states, and that it went
well beyond any technical issues of knowing how to protect oneself
by adjusting privacy settings. They spoke about it in a much broader

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sense, in terms of the nature and politics of social media. They had a
consciousness that “Facebook is a medium of surveillance”, and not a
neutral platform on which a few aberrant actors will create problems
by keeping tabs on what others do: “there is a constant surveillance,
you’re watched, you’re judged, right, I mean like you said even if it is a
political post, even if it is a comment” (Gayani).

There are a range of ways in which participants negotiate this
understanding. A number of lesbian women indicated that taking a
technical approach to ensuring safety from surveillance is exhausting
because they have to think about who their audience should be each
time they post something. It was also not viable for everyone, for the
very important reason that the technical solution of adjusting privacy
settings is easier to do on laptops and is more fiddly with smartphones,
and many lesbian women in the study did not own a laptop or did not
frequently use one they owned. It was because she knew that she
could not always change her privacy settings easily on her smartphone
that Lara, for instance, decided to take a different approach, ensuring
that she added certain people when she felt she could not, but placing
them permanently on limited profile.

For Thusitha, holding back is not an option. She “is not afraid to
publish” information from LGBTQ magazines on her Facebook page,
and posts her personal information (including her telephone number),
with the attitude that not holding to ideas of privacy and accepting
that surveillance is built into Facebook is part of the contract that
has always already been signed by all Facebook users. But hers was
not a fatalistic acceptance. Rather, she felt that the feeling of being
cowed by surveillance was not a realistic option if one wanted to use
Facebook, since part of the ways of using Facebook was for the user to
constantly negotiate with surveillance. “If you are scared, why are you
on Facebook?”, she asked.

Others had a more ambivalent response. A number of participants said
that they were guarded in how they posted on Facebook, and were
not very active around LGBTQ issues because of concerns about public
surveillance. Some, like Lara and Harshi, said that they could not be
bothered to do so. “It’s not that I don’t want to be open but I don’t
have the energy. I kind of refrain about being too open on Facebook,”
said Harshi. Hiranthi recalled that she had much less freedom now than
before, to post LGBT information, because of changes in her personal
circumstances. She observed,

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Because I have become a public figure I am not as out
as I was before. So I don’t post as many LGBT or queer
posts, whether sharing something or an article I have
read or whatever, I am more careful about what I post
and what I comment on. And that is something I am
juggling with at the moment. So I just want to add that
also.

Concurring with her, Rekha said,

I am also involved in public service, our institution has
a Facebook page. But I do not like get added onto it
because this would directly affect my job. So there
are issues like this when I am using the internet. So I
cannot share anything related to LGBT even if I wanted
to. I am not free in that sense and there are problems
for me like that. And it would be great if these are
resolved so that it wouldn’t be an issue for us. I like to
share information

At the same time, Rekha also posts her telephone number on her
Facebook profile.

A noteworthy aspect of this evolution in how lesbian women experience
public surveillance in their use of the online space, pertains to how they
themselves subjectively come to terms with it and resourcefully tackle
it. Rapti, for instance, who is an instructor in an educational institution,
was initially concerned about whether her colleagues or others would
see what she posted. She said,

“There are people from my institution who have added
me on Facebook for a long time.… then after a while
then that means they know what I am posting. So that
is a bit problematic for me. For a long time because
of that I censored myself quite strictly. But now my
approach within my institution, is about how to be
open minded and critical, like if you cannot handle that
on Facebook, then, you know ‘tough’ kind of attitude.

Social networking and dating
Making friends and sustaining friendships are two other central uses
of the online space, chiefly Facebook. Some, like Pushpa, said that they
“use Facebook mainly to find friends, especially LGBT friends that will

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be coming through friends of mine, because most of the friends on my
list are lesbians.” Others, like Lara, said that they do not actively search
for friends on Facebook, and that they usually ‘friend’ people that they
already know. Facebook was also used for maintaining a “network” of
LGBT friends from different parts of the world. Gayani said, “In terms
of LGBT, I think having a network of people at the international level
is enabled through Facebook, because I have lived in several countries
and then you have friends in several countries.”

Dating

The study probed for whether women used the online space for dating
purposes. The general view emerging from the focus group discussion
(and confirmed by the online survey), was that online dating in general,
and the use of dating apps more specifically, was not common amongst
lesbians, as far as women were aware of the behaviour in their circles.
This was confirmed across different age groups. Except for two
participants, the others said that they had not and did not actively use
Tinder or any other dating apps.

One of the factors cited by a few of the women in the study was that
they were in a “committed relationship” (Thusitha) with another
woman, which implied that they were not looking to date. However,
this was not the only factor, not least because not all women were
partnered. Attitudes to dating apps were hinted at as one aspect of it.
Mali wanted to affirm that although dating apps were not used, there
was nothing to show that lesbians were necessarily averse to them
or looked down on women who used them. Citing a small number of
cases of some lesbians who were comfortable with using dating apps
and had found them fulfilling, she took the view that it offered a space
for women to find other women to date. Although this was not entirely
free from issues of politics or safety, she felt that that did not entirely
gainsay the value of such a space, especially when the space for women
to meet one another offline was restricted by structural factors. Thus,
“even though we don’t use it, I think it’s a good thing”. Ratna also
thought that dating apps were useful as one way for women to find
other women to date, saying “I don’t use dating sites, but I have gone
to them and searched them and taken a look at them.” Conversely,
the views of a few women implied that they were neither aware of
nor curious about dating apps; many also didn’t seem to know that
there were international dating apps for women only; there was some
uncertainty about whether these apps could be used locally.

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Dating apps did not receive much emphasis from most of the women in
the study, but this did not mean that they did not use the online space
for forming emotional and sexual connections. Some stated that they
had used the online space quite heavily to date and form relationships.
For one woman who had a long distance relationship with her partner,
platforms such as Skype, Gchat and Facetime were extremely important
to maintain the relationship. Two of the respondents in our interviews -
a couple - met and began their relationship online, though not through
a dating site or app. They ‘followed’ each other professionally online
for a while and then started chatting via platforms like Facebook.

Reputation

There was some anxiety about others’ estimation of you depending
on what you post and share, and through the politics you publicly
share online etc. A certain amount of caution and forethought are
practiced by some of the respondents when it comes to assessing
what specific posts may or may not ‘say’ about them to others. This
safeguarding of reputation also translates into a sense of surveillance
for some, although the implications are very different from what we
have discussed above.

Referring to her social media circles, Mali took the approach that
“people are very self conscious on Facebook”, and that she was
constantly mindful of that when she posted anything, knowing that
what she said would affect how her politics were seen and evaluated.
She said,

When I share LBT issues on Facebook, I know that
there are people who are watching what we share..
We have a peer group and they are most often trying
to see or they say ‘ah, you shared this? No point, this is
fake news’ or this news is ‘ara anthavadi patthen inna
kattiya liyana ekkak’ [it’s written from an extremist or
regressive point of view] or this information is correct
from this side of politics but incorrect from another
side of politics.

This sort of surveillance entailed that “we need to think about these
things at least three to four times before we share something, because
we first think about what people may think about our politics and
then act on Facebook. I know”. Mali explained that “this is why I
share everything very carefully, because what people think of you also
changes when you share something.”

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One of the underlying assumptions in this form of surveillance, is that
the social media profile is a direct reflection of one’s ‘real’ self and one’s
‘real’ politics. Kala disputed this attempt to form quick and categorical
impressions, saying, “people are always going to be like, ‘what is this
person about’ every time you say something, post something. Have a
cat picture? You become a cat person!”

Anxieties about one’s reputation or how one is perceived - or how
one perceives oneself in these spaces - seems also connected to
one’s ‘safety’. One participant deliberately stays out of the way of
confrontation because it makes her feel unsafe but also because she
believes herself to be someone who cannot win in such a confrontation.

But because I don’t actually have the tools to take
part in a conversation and defend it in a way that is
intellectual or where i can definitely be confident
about making the point very clear, I don’t take part.
But just reading somebody else’s comment - just
reading itself is harassment. that’s enough, that’s the
most I can take (laughs). (Kishani)

Safety

It became clear to us that many of the lesbian women we spoke with
did not approach online ‘safety’ in a traditionally technical sense. There
were certainly anxieties about risk in terms of online engagements,
but what we highlight is the fact that most emphasised the value of
prudence in their approach, which included the technical but was not
limited to it. A more integrated understanding of being prudent in one’s
online engagements was seen as a more empowering perspective for
lesbian women over approaches that encouraged technical measure
that were defensive or encouraged feelings of being victimised and
afraid.

It was evident that many of the respondents were consciously prudent
in their use of various apps and social media platforms for different
purposes, particularly in terms of sharing content privately or for
holding private group chats. They were clearly well-aware of privacy
concerns around platforms such as Facebook. For instance, Pushpa
highlighted how her group of lesbian friends began connecting with
one another through a space like Facebook which facilitated such
networking but was known to be relatively ‘unsafe’. Once trust had

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been formed and an offline meeting had taken place, they deliberately
exited their Facebook group, transitioning the conversation to another
online space which was perceived to be one that they had more
control over, and which was more private and ‘safer’, such as Viber.
This was only one example of how most of the participants creatively
manipulated multiple online platforms synergistically for their varied
purposes.

It is important to note that, except for one participant, none of the
other lesbian women had attended digitial safety trainings, as stated
in the online survey. It is safe to assume that their knowledge of online
privacy and safety is almost exclusively derived from experience, both
personal and collective. For instance, Pushpa said,

In terms of those lesbian women who are on
Facebook or on the Internet, if there is some kind
of issue, say we hear of such an issue, we tell them
what they should do. And many times I have told
people to adjust their privacy settings. I know a lot
of people who get on Facebook and still don’t know
how to adjust their privacy settings. So for them I
would make a step-by-step screenshot and send it to
them to make their privacy settings. So the group of
friends that are with me have adjusted their privacy
settings accordingly, and even though I haven’t faced
any issues, I know of the issues faced by my friends.
Because of that I have given them advice on how
to adjust their privacy settings. Who should they
accept on facebook and who they shouldn’t and
what they should do etc. I have informed them of it.”

Strategies

We observed that their ‘prudence’ has led to many of these women
developing simple and very ‘practical’ approaches and strategies to
remain safe online. Some of these strategies were:
ƒƒ Adding family members on limited profile
ƒƒ Adding only ‘second generation’ relatives (i.e. their peer
group), not older relatives
ƒƒ Adding someone only if there are mutual friends or if there are
connections amongst the mutual friends
ƒƒ Not adding relatives / family members at all
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ƒƒ Holding back on engaging / commenting in conversations
about sexuality
ƒƒ Holding back on posting content about sexuality
ƒƒ Holding back on engaging / commenting on posts made by
family members or relatives which oppose their own views
(e.g. Religious posts)
ƒƒ ‘Liking’ political posts/content by others which reflect what
one would want to say, in lieu of actually commenting
ƒƒ Keeping posts pithy and short in order to avoid being drawn
or baited on them
ƒƒ Not taking objectionable comments head on, but using an
oblique discourse which makes the point but is more legible
to one’s peer group than to the person making the comment
ƒƒ Setting up collective action - ‘alarming’ other friends if there is
someone suspicious online
ƒƒ Giving each other tips on things such as ‘privacy settings’
ƒƒ Making judgements about not imperilling other lesbian
women by posting content which identifies them

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101
Conclusion

We found that many, if not all, of the lesbian women we spoke to, hold
perspectives on their online safety which perhaps run contrary to the
stereotypical narratives and beliefs about how women / women with
diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, approach online
engagements.

A number of them acknowledged that their online engagements were
constrained, and that these were specifically gendered and sexualised
experiences. Some of the respondents were not actively advocating
on right-based topics online, or sharing or commenting explicitly on
content directly related to sexuality and sexual rights on a frequent
basis. They simply did not engage with these conversations online,
sometimes out of an anxiety about facing homophobic trolling, but
also because this was not how they used those tools.

However, while these constraints shaped how they engaged online,
at personal, affective and structural levels, many also took pains to
tease out the different strands in their experiences, so that we did not
simply get a homogeneous and monolithic picture of oppression and
struggle. They were particularly adept at showing how power flowed
in uneven ways in the constraints placed on them, and how they were
able to manipulate, disrupt, negotiate and manage their use of the
online space in those interstices.

They focused on the importance of being well-informed; pragmatic
about surveillance and constraints; not giving into fear; being prudent
about safety, rather than defensive and victimised; being vigilant
when they had to be without over-emphasising it; understanding that
their own consciousness of the constraints (particularly surveillance)
also shifted over time and were not eternal; taking a holistic view to
surveillance, including recognising that there were structural factors
that enabled it on social media, and so on.

What is important is to note that none of the group had any experiences
with Digital Safety Trainings, as we said before, and their knowledge
seemed to come from a more subjective place, honed through lived
experience and learning from others.

If we were to examine traditional Digital Safety Trainings and how
they are carried out, they largely follow a strictly ‘technical’ approach
to safety. Trends have changed in Digital Safety Trainings, of course;

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
102
increasingly trainers are adopting ‘Holistic’ or ‘Integrated’ training
practices: ‘The blending of digital, physical and psycho-social aspects
of security may be called ‘holistic’ or ‘integrated’ security’. 105 But these
are new practices; until recently, the prevailing attitude among many
digital safety trainers was that the solution is purely technical.

Traditional Digital Safety trainings typically ‘include hands-on installation
and use of tools.’106 A critical research about Digital Safety Trainings for
Human Rights Defenders (cited in this paper), produced some findings
about the ways in which traditional digital safety trainings are carried
out and some of the perceived causes behind their reduced efficacy.

“The most overwhelming and common finding across both studies was
that digital security has to be taught within communities and within
existing networks and collaborative structures”,” writes Stephanie
Hanckey, from the Tactical Technology Collective. “In our view, the
research showed that digital security taught in a one-off encounter, or
on an individual basis rarely works. Community or collective learning is
an essential element on multiple levels.”107

In a sense, her words echoed one of our key findings: the lesbian women
we spoke with learned to look at ‘safety’ from their own experiences
but also largely through sharing experiences, tips, knowledge and a
sense of collective responsibility for each other’s safety as well as their
own.

In the Tactical Tech research, they observe how the traditional ‘fear-
based, tool-centric’ model of Digital Safety trainings is already being
reconceptualized in many circles, as this model of training has proven
over time to be ineffective and unethical.

In addition, we would also like to offer up the notion that this
traditional model of ‘fear-based, tool-centric’ Digital Safety trainings is
gender-blind and inherently male-centric in its approach to technology
and digital safety, often leaving out a range of lived experiences
and knowledge of diverse peoples, on navigating and managing
technological tools and digital spaces.

105 Digital Security Trainers’ Practices and Observations, Carol Waters (Tactical Technology
Collective) https://secresearch.tacticaltech.org/digital-security-trainers-practices-and-
observations Downloaded on: 29 Sept 2017
106 Digital Security Trainers’ Practices and Observations, Carol Waters (Tactical Technology
Collective) https://secresearch.tacticaltech.org/digital-security-trainers-practices-and-
observations Downloaded on: 29 Sept 2017
107 https://secresearch.tacticaltech.org/background

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Findings which emerge from studies like this one show us a contrary
picture; that so-called ‘marginalised’ persons, such as the lesbian
women in this study, use the internet and online tools every day in
multiple ways, while thinking creatively and practically about their
safety and the safety of others in their communities. It was clear that
these strategies are constantly evolving in ways that align dynamically
with changes in their every-day lives, as well as in their practices and
habits online.

Digital safety strategies and narratives which do not address every-day
realities and the specific ways in which lesbian women use the internet,
will not feel relevant to them. Furthermore, for many of the women,
the technical approach to safety did not adequately address the
broader issue of the gendered and sexualised surveillance of women.
Privacy and safety concerns were clearly prevalent in our respondent
group but what we found was that more often than not, they relied on
a number of self-taught tactics - and not only the technology - to come
to their aid. The lived experiences and knowledge of women such as
those in this study need to find their way into how technologies are
designed and managed; how digital safety is conceptualized and how
digital safety trainings are designed and implemented; and finally, into
policy around digital safety, privacy and autonomy.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
104
Recommendations

To the Government of Sri Lanka

1. Repeal Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code.
2. Reform Section 399 of the Penal Code to explicitly exclude
transgender persons from the scope of “cheat by personation”.
3. Clarify the offences contained in obscenity and profanity laws, and
their applicability to the online space.
4. Ensure that all laws affecting online speech and online privacy are
“necessary in a democratic society”, even if this means, in some
cases, total abolition.
5. Amend the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Act (as
amended in 1996), to specifically exclude the commission’s power
to oversee surveillance measures in individual cases. Require
any general evaluation of an ISP’s compliance with surveillance
requests, if provided for, to be transparent and in the public
domain.
6. Establish a separate body, either judicial or quasi-judicial in
nature, to oversee ISP compliance with surveillance measures.
Ensure that such a body will be comprised of individuals with
adequate expertise in human rights and law enforcement and
that its members will be independently appointed and secure in
their tenure. Ensure the availability of judicial review against any
measures authorised by such a body. Subject the body’s conduct
to a general periodic review by the Human Rights Commission of
Sri Lanka.
7. Ensure that all online surveillance measures are subject to the
approval of an independent body, such as the body recommended
above; in no case should an investigating official have a unilateral
authority to order or initiate online surveillance measures; if
exceptions are made for exigent circumstances requiring quick
action, ensure that subsequent judicial or similar independent
approval of such action is mandatory, within at least 48 to 72 hours
of such time the action first goes into operation.
8. Ensure that surveillance measures carried out through
intermediaries (such as ISPs) are only allowed where necessary,

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
105
after less intrusive alternatives have been considered and shown
to be ineffective or in some other way detrimental to the legitimate
aims pursued by the measure.
9. Enact legislation requiring ISPs to notify users of surveillance
measures as the general rule; if exceptions are to be applied to
this general rule, ensure that the application of exceptions are
authorised by an independent body based on their necessity, and
that the applicability of the exceptions is reviewed periodically. In
no case should an exception be applied indefinitely or terminally.
10. Ensure full compliance with the Convention on Cybercrime and the
International Bill of Rights in all laws related to internet regulation
and surveillance.

Law enforcement agencies
11. Enact laws that guarantee the safety and inclusiveness of the online
space, including laws that penalise persistent and/or particularly
egregious harassment of individuals based on their identity (such as
race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin).
Ensure that such laws adequately define the prohibited types of
speech and provide intentionality as an essential element of the
offence. Ensure that the penalties imposed on wrongdoers are
proportionate, and serve the purpose of promoting public order
and respect for others’ rights in the online space.
12. Enact laws that criminalise the unauthorised disclosure and/or
publication of content shared between private individuals. Ensure
that such laws focus on and criminalise the aspects of abuse,
harassment and exploitation related to such acts, and the violation
of privacy related to such acts. Shift the focus away from notions
of “obscenity” and “profanity,” in such cases.
13. Strengthen existing redress agencies (such as SLCERT) to
record and respond to online harassment faced by people of
diverse sexualities and gender identities in Sri Lanka with full
confidentiality. Ensure that victims seeking redress may hold such
agents to account (through judicial review or otherwise), in terms
of how reports by victims are received, and what actions are taken
in response to such reports.
14. Develop and implement guidelines for CID Cyber Crime Division
that guarantees non-discrimination based on gender identity and
sexual orientation and protects confidentiality.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
106
15. Investigate complaints of online harassment or threats against
people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and
ensure fair and impartial investigations of the complaints that hold
perpetrators accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
16. Take measures to ensure that all law enforcement officers respect
the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation
and gender identity.

Internet service providers
17. Develop and implement guidelines that are non-discriminatory
on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly
when transgender persons obtain services, and where sexuality or
gender minorities are affected by adverse legal procedures.
18. Link regulatory compliance with ISPs’ overall branding strategy
(albeit in a manner respecting the privacy rights of individual
customers). Ensure that the public is informed of the government’s
various surveillance powers and measures; adopt policies that
prioritise the rights of the customer in all cases except where
government agencies have followed and complied with the
necessary procedural requirements.

Civil society organisations
19. Document both online and offline experiences of people of
diverse sexualities and gender identities and advocate with the
Government of Sri Lanka for legal and policy reform related to the
rights of people of diverse sexualities and gender identities in Sri
Lanka.
20. Strengthen partnerships and referral systems with government
agencies that provide redress for online harassment.
21. Develop more effective information, education and communication
around existing laws, polices and services that are related to
internet use, so that people of diverse sexualities and gender
identities in Sri Lanka know when their rights are violated online
and seek redress when required.
22. Develop strategies to increase knowledge on cyber safety among
people of diverse sexualities and gender identities in Sri Lanka.
23. Adopt a general trilingual policy in all online communications and
interventions to ensure inclusiveness.

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
107
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Appendices
Appendix A: Glossary of Terms

LGBTQI – A common abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
questioning and intersexed community.

Lesbian – Term used to describe female-identified people attracted
romantically, erotically, and/or emotionally to other female-identified
people. The term lesbian is derived from the name of the Greek island
of Lesbos and as such is sometimes considered a Eurocentric category
that does not necessarily represent the identities of African-Americans
and other non-European ethnic groups. This being said, individual
female-identified people from diverse ethnic groups, including African-
Americans, embrace the term ‘lesbian’ as an identity label.

Gay – 1. Term used in some cultural settings to represent males who are
attracted to males in a romantic, erotic and/or emotional sense. Not
all men who engage in “homosexual behavior” identify as gay, and as
such this label should be used with caution. 2. Term used to refer to
the LGBTQI community as a whole, or as an individual identity label for
anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.

Bisexual – A person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to
males/men and females/women. This attraction does not have to be
equally split between genders and there may be a preference for one
gender over others.

Transgender – A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that
expected based on anatomical sex. Sexual orientation varies and is not
dependent on gender identity.

Queer – 1. An umbrella term which embraces a matrix of sexual preferences,
orientations, and habits of the not-exclusively- heterosexual-and-
monogamous majority. Queer includes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals,
transpeople, intersex persons. 2. A reclaimed word that was formerly
used solely as a slur but that has been semantically overturned by
members of the maligned group, who use it as a term of defiant
pride. ‘Queer’ is an example of a word undergoing this process. For
decades ‘queer’ was used solely as a derogatory adjective for gays and
lesbians, but in the 1980s the term began to be used by gay and lesbian
activists as a term of self-identification. Eventually, it came to be used
as an umbrella term that included gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and
transgendered people. Nevertheless, a sizable percentage of people
to whom this term might apply still hold ‘queer’ to be a hateful insult,
and its use by heterosexuals is often considered offensive. Similarly,
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
112
other reclaimed words are usually offensive to the in-group when
used by outsiders, so extreme caution must be taken concerning
their use when one is not a member of the group.

Intersexed Person—Someone whose sex a doctor has a difficult time
categorizing as either male or female. A person whose combination
of chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal sex organs, gonads,
and/or genitals differs from one of the two expected patterns.

Gender Identity – A person’s sense of being masculine, feminine, or other
gendered.

Sexual Orientation – The desire for intimate emotional and/or sexual
relationships with people of the same gender/sex, another gender/
sex, or multiple genders/sexes.

Heterosexism – Prejudice against individuals and groups who display
nonheterosexual behaviors or identities, combined with the majority
power to impose such prejudice. Usually used to the advantage of
the group in power. Any attitude, action, or practice – backed by
institutional power – that subordinates people because of their
sexual orientation.

Heteronormativity—The assumption, in individuals or in institutions,
that everyone is heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is superior
to homosexuality and bisexuality. Heterosexism – Prejudice against
individuals and groups who display non-heterosexual behaviors
or identities, combined with the majority power to impose such
prejudice. Usually used to the advantage of the group in power. Any
attitude, action, or practice – backed by institutional power – that
subordinates people because of their sexual orientation.

Homophobia – The irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals,
homosexuality, or any behaviour or belief that does not conform to
rigid sex role stereotypes. It is this fear that enforces sexism as well
as heterosexism.

Transphobia – The irrational fear of those who are gender variant and/or
the inability to deal with gender ambiguity

Coming Out – May refer to the process by which one accepts one’s own
sexuality, gender identity, or status as an intersexed person (to “come
out” to oneself). May also refer to the process by which one shares
one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersexed status with others (to
“come out” to friends, etc.). Page 3 This can be a continual, life-long
process for homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, and intersexed
individuals.
Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
113
Appendix B: Survey Questionnaire

1. Please select your age.
□□ Below 18
□□ 18 – 24
□□ 25 – 34
□□ 35 – 44
□□ 45 – 54
□□ 55 or over

2. What is your level of formal education? Please select the highest
degree you have achieved. (Select the most relevant answer.)
□□ Master’s degree or above
□□ Bachelor’s degree
□□ Passed A/Ls
□□ Passed O/Ls
□□ Passed primary education
□□ Able to read and write

3. Please select the gender you identify with.
□□ Male
□□ Female
□□ Trans M2F
□□ Trans F2M
□□ Third gender
□□ Gender non-identifying
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________

4. Please select the sexual orientation you identify with.
□□ I am only attracted to members of the opposite sex.
□□ I am only attracted to members of the same sex.
□□ I am attracted to members of both sexes.
□□ The sex of the person is not relevant.
□□ I am not sexually attracted to others.
□□ I am not sure.

5. Relationships. Select all that apply.
□□ I am in a committed relationship with a same-sex partner
□□ I am in a committed relationship with an opposite-sex partner
□□ I have one sexual partner
□□ I have more than one sexual partner

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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□□ I don’t have any sexual partners.
□□ I am looking to meet a sexual partner/sexual partners.
□□ I am legally married to someone.
□□ I have taken vows of celibacy.

Access of Internet
6. When did you start using the Internet? Please select the answer
most appropriate to you.
□□ More than 20 years ago
□□ More than 10 years ago
□□ More than 5 years ago
□□ More than 3 years ago
□□ Less than 3 years ago

7. How many hours a week do you have access to the Internet for
personal use?
□□ I have unlimited access
□□ More than 40 hours a week, but not always
□□ Between 40 – 30 hours a week
□□ Between 30 - 20 hours a week
□□ Between 20 – 10 hours a week
□□ Between 10 – 5 hours a week
□□ Less than 5 hours a week

8. How frequently do you use the Internet for personal use? Select the
most relevant answer.
□□ More than 40 hours a week
□□ Between 40 – 30 hours a week
□□ Between 30 - 20 hours a week
□□ Between 20 – 10 hours a week
□□ Between 10 – 5 hours a week
□□ Less than 5 hours a week

9. From which devices do you most frequently access the Internet for
personal use? You can select up to three answers most relevant to
you.
□□ My own laptop/desktop
□□ My own tablet/smart phone
□□ My own feature phone (phone with only basic internet
capabilities)
□□ Someone else’s laptop/desktop (e.g. family member’s, a
partner’s or friend’s)

Disrupting binary code: experiences of LGBT sri Lankans online
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□□ Someone else’s tablet/smart phone (e.g. family member’s, a
partner’s or friend’s)
□□ Someone else’s feature phone (a phone with basic internet
capabilities)
□□ Work laptop/desktop
□□ Work tablet/smart phone
□□ Work feature phone (a phone with basic internet capabilities)
□□ Internet café

10. Have you ever accessed information relating to any of the following
themes on the internet.
□□ LGBT related news from around the world
□□ Legal and policy information related LGBT issues in Sri Lanka
□□ Safe sex practices
□□ Sexually transmitted infections
□□ LGBT organisations
□□ LGBT themed art (movies, TV shows, stories)
□□ General information on services provided by the government (ID
documents, taxes, vehicle registration)

11. What are the steps you take to ensure that the information you
access on the internet is accurate?

Use of the Internet
12. Select all the platforms you use frequently.
Social Media Platforms
□□ Facebook
□□ Twitter
□□ Instagram
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________
Dating Apps
□□ General dating apps, such as Tinder
□□ Dating apps specially designed for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Trans
People
Messaging Apps
□□ Whatsapp
□□ Viber
□□ FB Messenger
□□ Imo
□□ Snapchat
□□ Email
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________
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Forums
□□ LGBT-themed blogs
□□ Discussion Forums
□□ LGBT Groups
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________

Social Media Platforms
13. Please choose all the statements relevant to you.
I use social media platforms _____________________.
□□ to maintain existing relationships
□□ to meet new friends
□□ to meet new friends from the LGBT community
□□ to find partners for monogamous relationships
□□ to meet partners for sexual encounters (non-commercial)
□□ to meet clients for commercial sex work
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________

14. Do you have more than one profile on the social media platform
that you use most frequently for reasons related to your sexual
orientation and gender identity? (Please choose only one answer.)
□□ Yes, I have more than one profile on my preferred social media
platform for reasons related to my sexual orientation or gender
identity.
□□ I have more than one profile on my preferred social media
platform, but not for any reason related to my sexual orientation
or gender identity.
□□ I don’t have more than one profile on any social media platform.
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

15. Please choose one statement that is most relevant to you.
□□ All of my profiles on the same platform feature my real name and
images of my face.
□□ Only one (or some) of my profiles feature my real name and
images of my face.
□□ I only have one profile per platform. It features my real name and
images of my face.
□□ I only have one profile per platform. But it does not include
either my real name or images of myself (or both).
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

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16. Thinking about the social media profiles that feature your real name
and/or face pictures, which of these details have you truthfully
included? (Please select all that apply.)
□□ Real name
□□ Face picture
□□ Home address
□□ Phone number
□□ Sexual orientation
□□ Gender identity
□□ Political affiliation
□□ Groups I belong to
□□ I don’t have any profiles that include my real name and/or images
of myself.
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

17. Thinking about the social media profiles that include your real name
and/or images of yourself, please select the statement most relevant
to you.
□□ I share LGBT-related content publicly on my profile feed (e.g.
wall, timeline).
□□ I share LGBT-related content on my profile feed, but I limit
visibility to my “friends”, or specific “friend” circles/lists.
□□ I share LGBT-related content within specific groups, but rarely on
my own profile feed.
□□ I never share LGBT-related content on my own profile feed.
□□ I don’t have any profiles that include my real name and/or images
of myself.
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

18. Thinking about the social media profiles that include your real name
and/or images of yourself, please select the statement most relevant
to you.
□□ I would mention my sexual orientation and/or gender identity in
my social media posts and/or comments in any situation that I
feel like mentioning it in
□□ I would only mention my sexual orientation and/or gender
identity in my social media posts and/or comments in certain
limited circumstances
□□ I would never mention my sexual orientation and/or gender
identity in my social media posts and/or comments
□□ I maintain a sexual orientation and/or gender identity in my social
media posts and comments that is different to what I privately
identify with

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□□ I don’t have any profiles that include my real name and/or images
of myself.
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

19. If you have profiles that do not feature either your real name or face
pictures (or both) for a reason related to your sexual orientation or
gender identity, please select the statement that is relevant to you.
□□ I would mention my sexual orientation and/or gender identity in
my social media posts and/or comments in any situation that I
feel like mentioning it in
□□ I would only mention my sexual orientation and/or gender
identity in my social media posts and/or comments in certain
limited circumstances
□□ I would never mention my sexual orientation and/or gender
identity in my social media posts and/or comments
□□ I maintain a sexual orientation and/or gender identity in my social
media posts and comments that is different to what I privately
identify with
□□ I don’t have any profiles without my real name and/or images of
myself.
□□ I don’t have any profiles on any social media platform.

20. Why do you have profiles that do not feature your real name or face
picture (or both). Please select the answers most relevant to you.
□□ Because my sexual orientation is considered to be illegal.
□□ Because I am afraid of my family finding out about my sexual
orientation or gender identity.
□□ Because I am afraid of my friends finding out about my sexual
orientation or gender identity.
□□ Because I am afraid of my employer or work colleagues finding
out about my sexual orientation or gender identity.
□□ Because I am married.
□□ For religious reasons.
□□ Because I am a member of the clergy.
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________
□□ I do not have any profiles that do not include my real name and
images of myself.

21. In terms of the social media profiles that include your real name and/
or images of yourself, do you limit your participation on social media
(posts and comments) fearing any of the following factors? Please
choose three most relevant choices.
□□ I am afraid of other people finding out about my sexual
orientation or gender identity
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□□ I am afraid of what other people’s comments would be
□□ I am not interested in displaying my sexual orientation or gender
identity
□□ I am not sure whether it is legal to post such topics
□□ I am afraid it might result in violence against me in the physical
world
□□ I am afraid the government might find out about my sexual
orientation or gender identity
□□ I am afraid it might affect my job
□□ I don’t think anybody should talk about their sexuality and
gender issues on social media platforms
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________

22. Have you ever been the victim of a specific instance of violence or
threat of violence on internet because of your sexual orientation or
gender identity?
□□ Yes
□□ No
23. Have you experienced or personally known someone who
experienced any of the following. Please select all that applies.
□□ Videos exposing your or someone else’s sexual orientation/
gender identity posted online or shared with a third party
without consent
□□ Pictures exposing your or someone else’s sexual orientation/
gender identity posted online or shared with a third party
without consent
□□ Sexual orientation or gender identity being publicised online
without consent
□□ The experience of violence in the physical world, based on
something posted online related to your or their sexual
orientation and gender identity
□□ Verbal threats to do any of the above
□□ Online harassment (bullying, name-calling, condemnation, etc.)
□□ Law enforcement officials checking a person’s mobile phone,
laptop, internet account etc without their consent
□□ I have not experienced any of the above.
□□ I don’t know anyone who has experienced any of the above.

24. What are the platforms mostly impacted by the experiences you
identified above.
Social Media Platforms
□□ Facebook
□□ Twitter

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□□ Instagram
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________
Dating Apps
□□ General dating apps, such as Tinder
□□ Dating apps specially designed for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or
Trans People
Messaging Apps
□□ Whatsapp
□□ Viber
□□ FB Messenger
□□ Imo
□□ Snapchat
□□ Email
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________
Forums
□□ LGBT-themed blogs
□□ Discussion Forums
□□ LGBT Groups
□□ Other (please specify): _______________________

25. Thinking of the person or people responsible for the incident(s),
how did they relate to the person affected (you or someone else)?
□□ Friends
□□ Immediate family member
□□ Relative
□□ Someone with a romantic involvement
□□ Someone with a sexual involvement
□□ An acquaintance
□□ A stranger/someone unknown
□□ I don’t know the real identity of the person or people

26. How did you or the person affected respond to the experience?
(Select all that apply.)
□□ Deleted/deactivated the profile on that platform
□□ Was forced to create a new profile on that platform
□□ Unfriended or blocked the person
□□ Confronted the person either privately or in the comments
□□ Made a post publicising the wrongdoer and their actions
□□ Reported the person responsible to the platform
□□ Reported the problem to law enforcement    
□□ Confronted the individuals concerned personally in the physical
world
□□ Did not respond

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27. Did you receive a satisfactory resolution ?
□□ Yes
□□ No
□□ I don’t know the result yet
□□ Did not respond

Dating and Hookup Platforms.

28. Thinking about Dating and Hookup Platforms (Tinder etc.), please
select all the statements relevant to you.
□□ I am in or have had a romantic relationship with someone I met
on such a platform.
□□ I have found partners for sexual encounters on such platforms.
□□ I have found friends on such platforms.
□□ I find clients for commercial sex work on such platforms.
□□ I have never been on such platforms.
□□ I have attended events promoted/communicated on such
platforms.
□□ I promote events organised by me or someone I know through
such platforms.
□□ I left those platforms because I did not find them useful.
□□ I have never been on such platforms.

29. Thinking about the pictures you share on such platforms, please
select the statement most relevant to you.
□□ I share my face publicly
□□ I only share my face privately
□□ I never share my face
□□ I have never been on such platforms.

30. Thinking about the pictures you share on such platforms, please
select the statement most relevant to you.
□□ I share only non-nude pictures, both publicly and privately.
□□ I share non-nude pictures publicly, but I also share nude pictures
privately.
□□ I share nude pictures both publicly and privately.
□□ I don’t share any pictures on such platforms.
□□ I have never been on such platforms.

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31. Fill in the blank with the statement most appropriate to you.
When I meet someone new from such a platform for the first time,
“_________________________”
□□ I always video call them and see their face before I meet them.
□□ I always meet them in a public space (a main road, a restaurant,
a park).
□□ I invite them over, or I go to their place, or we meet at a friend’s
place.
□□ Sometimes I meet them in a public space, sometimes I meet
them directly in my place, their place, or a friend’s place.
□□ We sometimes meet directly in a hotel/rented room.
□□ I don’t meet people from such platforms in person.
□□ I always meet them with someone else I know.
□□ I have never been on such platforms.

Awareness of digital safety
32. Do you keep track of the security and policy updates made to the
online platforms that you most frequently use?
□□ Yes
□□ No
□□ I don’t know how to

33. Do you use any of the following tools and methods to increase your
security online?
□□ Using strong passwords for your email or other Internet
accounts
□□ Using only platforms which provide encryption services
□□ Using anti-virus software
□□ Keeping your operating system updated with the latest security
patches and updates
□□ Using IP disguisers/blockers
□□ Using anti-censorship software
□□ Using a VPN
□□ I have heard of some of these tools, but I don’t know how to use
them
□□ I have never heard of these tools before
□□ Others  _____________________________________

34. Have you participated in any digital safety training courses, seminars
or workshops?
□□ Yes
□□ No

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35. When you think about online experience compared with offline
experiences, would you say:
The online environment gives me more freedom to express and
explore my sexuality and/or gender identity
□□ Agree
□□ Disagree
□□ I don’t have an opinion on this
□□ I am not sure

The online environment connects me more to LGBT communities
in Sri Lanka
□□ Agree
□□ Disagree
□□ I don’t have an opinion on this
□□ I am not sure

The online environment connects me more to LGBT communities
around the world
□□ Agree
□□ Disagree
□□ I don’t have an opinion on this
□□ I am not sure

The Sri Lankan LGBT movement needs to work harder to make
use of the online space in its activism
□□ Agree
□□ Disagree
□□ I don’t have an opinion on this
□□ I am not sure

The potential for online activism has reduced the importance of
offline activism
□□ Agree
□□ Disagree
□□ I don’t have an opinion on this
□□ I am not sure

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